- - Wednesday, May 9, 2012

As Hurricane Ike neared the Texas coast in 2008, hundreds of hospital patients and nursing home residents were in harm’s way, facing a difficult escape from the storm’s path. That’s when the C-130s of the 136th Air- lift Wing, based in Fort Worth, Texas, went into action. That year, for the first time in U.S. history, C-130s were used to help move patients to safety ahead of a storm’s arrival. In all, between Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, also in 2008, 800 people were airlifted to safety.

The same planes were among the first to arrive following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, bringing much-needed supplies and National Guard troops to areas devastated by the storm.

If a plan being put in place by the U.S. Air Force is allowed to go into effect, that sort of mutual assistance among our Gulf Coast states could be a thing of the past.

Under the USAF Force Structure Changes, issued in February, eight National Guard C-130s currently based in Fort Worth would be relocated to Montana, far from a Gulf Coast - and its population of millions - extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. We don’t have any opposition to basing Air National Guard assets in Montana, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of the safety of the residents of the Gulf states.

As long as these assets are based in Texas, they are available with a simple phone call between governors, ready to fly across the state or into other states under Emergency Management Assistance Compacts.

Put simply, the sort of assistance the Air National Guard C-130s currently can provide within hours would take days, or longer, to arrive at a time when every minute could mean the difference between life and death.

Just a quick look at the numbers tells the tale of the value of these assets to Gulf Coast states. Since 2005, the 136th Airlift Wing’s C-130s have:

Flown 423 storm response sorties in coastal states.

Logged 567 hours of flight time.

Transported 3,143 passengers.

Delivered 939 tons of emergency supplies.

What can’t be qualified so easily is the suffering eased by a warm blanket, the comfort given by a hot meal and the unparalleled joy of a family reunited.

That’s what this airlift wing has meant to the residents of the Gulf states, and to relocate these assets 1,000 miles inland - to an area that faces few of the types of threats we do - makes little practical sense and even less financial sense.

Estimates of the costs of the move, including new training for ground personnel and the construction of new facilities, have been set as high as $75 million or more. That’s a huge waste of taxpayer money at a time of historic national debt. What’s worse, for a two-year transitional period while people are trained and facilities are built, these valuable assets essentially will be deleted from our national inventory. As Gulf Coast governors, we know firsthand how much damage can be done in two years.

We also have to give consideration to our first responders, who will be losing a valuable and important link in their supply chain, making their job of saving lives that much harder and more hazardous.

Since the Air Force plan was introduced in February, governors and their adjutant generals have attempted tirelessly to negotiate a compromise with senior leadership at the Defense Department to mitigate the drastic and unjustified cuts to the Air National Guard. In fact, in a letter dated March 5, we raised this issue with President Obama directly, hoping he would personally instruct the Air Force to alter its course. Unfortunately, the needs of the Gulf Coast states have fallen on deaf ears, as we still have received no response.

Last month, the Defense Department offered what it considered a compromise, with vague promises of reduced staff cuts and the nonspecific deployment of 24 C-130s currently slated for decommission because of age and safety concerns. We’ve rejected this offer, and the Air Force has conceded that its proposal fell far short of what our states need.

We are continuing to call upon Congress to reverse this decision and keep these indispensable assets where they’re needed most - manned and supported by experienced personnel and operated by people who know and understand the specific challenges of dealing with emergencies along the Gulf Coast.

Anything less than that is a horrible mistake that needlessly places many lives in danger.

Rick Perry is the Republican governor of Texas. Phil Bryant is the Republican governor of Mississippi.

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