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Washington embassies open their hearts to Katrina victims
The Washington Diplomat / October 2005

By Larry Luxner

At the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, dozens of staffers led by Ambassador Frank McKenna spent all day Sept. 7 conducting a telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims. By day's end, the embassy had raised more than $20,000 in donations to the Red Cross.

Some 750 people attended an outdoor breakfast benefit and a followup lunch, both of which were open to anyone making a donation.

"It was great to see this event take off," the defense attaché, Army Maj. Gen. Jan Arp, told reporters. "Every province has responded. We've opened up our national emergency stock to contribute supplies."

In the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina's destruction along the Gulf coast, similar events took place elsewhere along Embassy Row, as countries large and small offered contributions ranging from the thousands to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even chaotic, impoverished Haiti — the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation — pitched in, with Haitian Embassy staffers collecting about $1,500 for Katrina victims.

In dollar terms, the most generous offers of help are coming from oil-rich Middle East nations. Kuwait has already pledged $500 million in subsidized petroleum, while Qatar said it would kick in $100 million and Saudi Arabia an unspecified sum also believed to be in the millions of dollars. A $30 million contribution came from South Korea, while Singapore offered its fleet of Chinook helicopters to help lift survivors from New Orleans rooftops.

Perhaps the most visible help has come from Canada.

Almost immediately after the flooding began, a 40-man Canadian military diving team arrived in the stricken area, working with the U.S. Navy on the identification and removal of navigation hazards and levee inspection.

Meanwhile, a four-ship Canadian task group from the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard sailed from Halifax to the Gulf coast, carrying emergency supplies, small boats, communications experts, divers and Army engineers.

Likewise, the Canadian Air Force sent two CH-146 Griffin helicopters to assist the U.S. Coast Guard in covering the Boston area's search and rescue requirements, helping to cover the loss of several USCG helicopters sent from there to conduct rescue operations in the Gulf Coast region.

"We are ready to help," said McKenna. "You are our friends and together we are family — you do not suffer alone. We were there after 9/11 with volunteers, teams of rebuilding experts and in fundraisers and rallies across Canada. After our terrible ice storms in 1998, you were there to help us. In forest fires, floods and natural disasters, Canadians and Americans help each other."

From Europe, assistance was immediate and forthcoming.

The French armed forces sent 17 military personnel with expertise in underwater engineering to Pensacola, Fla., while an Airbus flying from Toulouse to Mobile, Ala., brought 12.7 tons of emergency equipment. Meanwhile, the French government dispatched two aircraft from the Caribbean island of Martinique, loaded with tents, tarps and food rations.

French multinationals that have joined in the effort, according to the French Embassy, include Airbus (logistical support); Eurocopter USA (two helicopters for search-and-rescue missions); food caterer Sodexho (500,000 meals); petroleum conglomerate Total ($1 million for the American Red Cross) and construction giant Lafarge (levee reconstruction work in New Orleans).

As part of a NATO plan, the British government has flown 500,000 military ration packs to Louisiana and Mississippi, while the German government offered to ready a hospital ship if needed.

William Timken, the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, thanked Germany "on behalf of the president, the U.S. government and all Americans" for the 25 tons of emergency food rations and the deployment of members of the German Red Cross throughout afflicted areas. Norway, meanwhile, has sent tents, blankets and surgical supply kits. Its donation was praised by the visiting King Harald V and Queen Sonja during a fundraising event at the Norwegian Embassy celebrating 100 years of strong relations between the United States and Norway.

And the Netherlands — experts in keeping the sea at bay — made good use of their talents by offering to send a volunteer team of portable water pump technicians to remove water from flooded areas caused by a breached levee in Plaquemines Parish.

The area, located about an hour southeast of New Orleans, was hit hard by Katrina and caused severe flooding to small towns and communities, and damaged the pumping station at the site.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Dutch frigate HNLMS Van Amstel has been deployed for humanitarian relief operations in hard-hit Biloxi, Miss. And the Royal Netherlands Navy frigate Van Amstel has been anchored off the coast of Biloxi since Wednesday, September 7. Apart from its regular complement of 150 staff persons, the ship carries 40 extra personnel including medical professionals and evacuation experts.

On Sept. 13, a team of five Dutch experts from the Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) and three mobile water pumps arrived in New Orleans to help pump the flood waters from the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

The pumps flown in from Holland can expel 3,000 cubic meters of water an hour and each pump can run for 48 hours continuously on one tank of diesel fuel. Once the Army Corps of Engineers directs the Dutch experts to where the pumps are needed, the pumps can be up and running within three days. Because these pumps are mobile, they can be easily transported to different locations.

The Dutch experts will prioritize the Corps' needs and place the pumps where needed, while offering assistance on fixing damaged pumps. Spokesman Dolf Pasman said the team will be in Louisiana to help in Katrina recovery efforts "for as long as it takes."

Yet the Bush administration hasn't welcomed all foreign offers of expert assistance with open arms. Reports are emerging that the United States turned down offers of expert assistance from Israel and other nations in the crucial first days after Katrina took its toll on New Orleans.

Experts have offered a number of explanations for this attitude, including the bureaucratic difficulties involved in absorbing thousands of foreign first-responder personnel; the belief that the existing first-responder infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi was well equipped to handle crisis; and the potential political fallout from asking foreigners to help the world's greatest power save lives on its own turf.

Such a request would have been "a tremendous admission of failure," said one official of a non-governmental organization who asked not to be identified.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "Israel would have been uniquely placed to help, since a cadre of medical experts originally trained to attend to terrorist attacks has honed its expertise at earthquake and hurricane zones across the world. Most recently, Israel rushed medical personnel to Sri Lanka within hours of the tsunami in late December.

In 1998, Israel's lightning response to al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, hours ahead of the arrival of U.S. rescuers, was credited with saving dozens of lives.

A statement from the Israeli Prime Minister's Office said the country's original offer was for "the dispatch of medical teams numbering hundreds of people, considerable medical equipment, medicines and additional necessary equipment.

But the White House rejected Ariel Sharon's offer and other pledges of first-responder and professional medical help from abroad.

"Israel's offer on Sept. 1, a day after the Bush administration declared Katrina's aftermath a public health emergency, came within the four-day window when such assistance is crucial," said the JTA report. "Israel might have had personnel on the ground by Friday morning; authorities did not start evacuating the New Orleans Superdome, where most refugees from the hurricane had gathered, until Saturday."

No one at the Israeli Embassy commented on the report, though in the end, the United States did ask Israel to deliver equipment and material. On Sept. 8, the Sharon government immediately airlifted to Little Rock, Ark., some 80 tons of food packages, diapers, beds, blankets, generators, first-aid kits, wheelchairs, stretchers, baby food and other essentials on an El Al flight that was partially financed by the Jewish National Fund.

Similar aid never arrived from Venezuela and Cuba — two countries with which the Bush administration has singled out for particularly harsh criticism — despite generous statements of solidarity with the American people by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Chávez, who has accused the United States of trying to have him assassinated, offered $1 million in subsidized petroleum from the Citgo refinery in Lake Charles, La., which is 100% owned by state oil entity Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.

"As a way of expressing its solidarity and sentiments of compassion towards the families of the victims that are facing the loss of their material goods, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reiterates the offer made by President Hugo Chávez, of sending fuel and humanitarian aid to the United States," said a statement from Venezuela's Foreign Ministry in Caracas.

In addition, a Venezuelan Embassy spokeswoman said Chávez had offered two mobile hospital units each capable of assisting 150 people; 120 specialists in rescue operations, 10 water purifying plants, 18 electricity generators of 850 kilowatts each; 20 tons of bottled water and 50 tons of canned food.

Yet to date, the State Department hasn't commented on the offer.

Likewise, the White House has rebuffed Castro's very public vow to send 1,586 doctors and 36 tons of relief supplies to Gulf states devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

A State Department official who asked not to be named told the Diplomat that "in principle, all offers of foreign assistance will be accepted. Our disaster management experts will assess them in light of our possible needs and current U.S. law. However, Cuba may have a more pressing need of assisting its own people who were recently devastated by Hurricane Dennis, and we do not want to diminish the aid flowing to those Cubans who are in need."

The White House was much more blunt. When a reporter asked spokesman Scott McClellan about Castro's standing offer, he replied: "When it comes to Cuba, we have one message for Fidel Castro. He needs to offer the people of Cuba their freedom."

The Cuban leader had initially proposed flying 1,100 doctors and 26 tons of emergency supplies to Houston, but upped the offer after reports began emerging of the widespread devastation suffered by hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Lazaro Herrera, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said the Cuban team was to have included specialists in general medicine as well as psychiatrists, cardiologists, pediatricians, surgeons, epidemiologists and gastroenterologists.

Besides the political issues, there appear to be some very practical considerations in assessing Castro's proposal. For one thing, the White House doesn't know how many of these physicians would opt to stay on U.S. soil once the emergency is over. Secondly, the U.S. government might be concerned that at least some of the doctors Castro wants to send would also be spies.

That's why the carefully crafted rejection of Castro's offer — couched in the polite language of diplomacy — surprised no one in Washington. After all, few observers really expected the Bush administration to accept help from Fidel Castro, of all people.

What is surprising is that the only Cuban-American in the Senate, Mel Martínez (R-Florida), has publicly suggested that accepting Castro's offer might not be such a bad idea.

"If we need doctors, and Cuba offers them and they provide good service, of course we should accept them," Martínez told reporters. "And we're grateful for that offer."

Added José Serrano (D-New York): "If you have a flood in your home and a neighbor you don't like offers you a pump, you don't turn him down and let your house continue being flooded."

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