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New Orleans-Based Diplomats Play Key Role in Katrina Relief
The Washington Diplomat / February 2006

By Larry Luxner

NEW ORLEANS — Five months have passed since Hurricane Katrina ripped apart New Orleans, and Costa Rican diplomat Gonzalo Calderón still hasn't moved back home.

That's because Calderón has nowhere to return to.

"I lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building, but the first floor got flooded up to about eight feet. For three weeks, the water was standing there, stinking," he said. "Even today, there's nobody in the building, and still no electricity and no elevators."

At 71, Calderón is the dean of the New Orleans diplomatic corps. Before Katrina, that elite club consisted of 52 foreign government representatives, all of which were honorary consuls except for eight: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Honduras, Panama, Spain and Venezuela.

In Katrina's wake, Ecuador has closed its office permanently and the fate of several other missions is still unknown.

Calderón, who's been Costa Rica's consul-general in New Orleans for nearly eight years, is temporarily operating out of an office in Hammond, 45 miles northwest of the Big Easy.

"I have a very good friend who's president of Southeastern Louisiana University, Randy Moffett, so five days after Katrina, I called Randy and told him I was homeless and office-less," Calderón recalled. "He told me he would set up an office for me at their business center. One week after Katrina, I was operating from the university. We're very grateful for that kind of help in this kind of a crisis."

Even so, Calderón said, "the first two months were horrible. We couldn't communicate with our people and they couldn't communicate with us. Land lines in the 504 area code were down, and my cellphone was working only 5-10% of the time. It was a horrible task, looking for our people."

He added: "We had a generous offer from a brewery, Cervecería Costa Rica, to donate truckloads of bottled water to Katrina victims. But there was nobody you could contact. We wanted to give, but there was no way to give."

Another diplomat who's had her hands full is Lourdes Matriz, Venezuela's consul-general here. One of the nation's largest oil refineries, located in Lake Charles, belongs to Citgo, which is 100% owned by Venezuela's state oil monopoly, PDVSA. A second refinery located in Chalmette, just outside New Orleans, is run a joint venture between Exxon and PDVSA; that refinery suffered "grave damages" as a result of Katrina, Matriz told us.

"Katrina destroyed about 70% of my house and possessions, and so I relocated to Lake Charles, where the consulate set up an emergency office. Two weeks later, we had to evacuate again because of Rita," said Matriz, who runs a five-person office.

Eugene J. Schreiber is managing director of the New Orleans World Trade Center, a 33-story skyscraper at the end of historic Canal Street that houses nearly all the city's full-fledged diplomatic missions.

"When Katrina came, everybody left because it was required to leave," he said. "But all the career diplomats were active — even while they were away — because they had to locate their nationals."

And nobody has more of its citizens in New Orleans than Honduras, said Schreiber, estimating the Honduran resident population here at 60,000 to 70,000. That dates back to the days when New Orleans was the headquarters of United Fruit Co., which for years dominated the Honduran banana trade.

"Three days before Katrina, before anyone even knew a hurricane was coming, Honduran Ambassador Norman García flew out here to speak on CAFTA," he said. "Afterward, he and [Consul General] María Eugenia Lobo drove here from Baton Rouge, walked up here in the dark to get their records and consular seal, then walked out and left."

Schreiber, a former Foreign Service officer, said his World Trade Center — founded in 1943 — is the oldest and largest world trade center in the Western Hemisphere, with around 2,000 members.

As such, Schreiber is heavily involved in organizing foreign trade missions to New Orleans. That's likely to increase, now that Congress has approved billions of dollars in reconstruction work such as rebuilding levees and implementing flood-control technology.

"Inbound trade missions are dying to come here," he told the Diplomat. "Two weeks ago, we had a Swedish trade delegation. The province of Québec is bringing a mission here in February, and four or five more in 2006. Nova Scotia is also bringing a mission."

In 2005, Louisiana's leading export markets were Mexico ($1.96 billion), Japan ($1.76 billion), China ($1.5 billion), Canada ($1.3 billion), and the Netherlands ($564 million). In Katrina's wake, several ambassadors have traveled from Washington to New Orleans to give speeches and promote even more trade with their respective countries.

For example, Dutch Ambassador Boudewijn van Eenennaam, speaking Nov. 27 at the Wyndham New Orleans, spoke of the importance of flood control to both Louisiana and the Netherlands.

"On an annual basis, water protection costs the Dutch government $500 million per year. We consider this a good investment, as insurance for $350 billion of Gross Domestic Product. We get safety and security behind the dikes at a cost of less than a penny on a dollar of GDP," he told local business executives.

"Your officials are discussing how to rebuild the Gulf coast and what level of protection to provide. We have learned that underinvestment in infrastructure may be penny-wise, but also pound foolish. If people or businesses don't feel secure, they won't return. They won't build anew. They won't take entrepreneurial risks. That would be devastating to everyone here tonight and those you represent. It would also prevent the United States from maximizing the return on investment already found in this amazing area."

The oldest diplomatic mission in New Orleans is the French Consulate, which isn't a surprise considering the city's strong French heritage. But the consulate doesn't issue passports or visas or serve any other administrative function; it mainly looks after cultural issues. Even so, France has donated millions of dollars for hurricane relief.

The Department of State also got involved in post-Katrina relief efforts.

Joseph Sullivan, a Foreign Service career officer who now works as a diplomat-in-residence at Tulane University, said he spent all of September in Baton Rouge helping foreign governments locate their missing nationals.

"At one point, we had a list of hundreds of missing citizens from foreign countries, and at the end of the day, the number who actually perished was in the single digits," said Sullivan, who served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe and Angola, as well as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, before taking up his current post in New Orleans.

"Foreign countries also delivered a substantial amount of assistance," he said. "From NATO countries, this assisance was transported in cargo planes provided by the Ukrainian government to Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas. In all, there were 22 flights. USAID did the logistics to make sure that we could identify what was coming in on those flights, and that they matched what was needed."

At present, the city's largest diplomatic mission is that of Japan.

From his downtown office on the 20th floor of the Entergy building, Consul General Masaru Sakato oversees a staff of 22 people — including 14 local hires.

On Aug. 28, the day before Katrina hit, Sakato evacuated his staff to Houston, where he set up an emergency operations center at the Japanese Consulate there to try to locate the 450 or so Japanese nationals living in Louisiana and Mississippi.

"Since it was very difficult to contact people in this region, we set up liaison offices in Baton Rouge, La., and Hattiesburg, Miss., and assigned four Japanese consuls in each place," he said, noting that one Japanese citizen living in Mississippi died in the hurricane.

It was a month and a half before Sakato could return to his New Orleans office, which sustained minimal damage. In the meantime, he said, more than $35 million in hurricane relief arrived from Japan, including contributions from 12,000 individuals and over 100 large Japanese companies.

"Many people made contributions from Japan," Sakato said, "and I think this shows there's a sort of human bond which connects us, and that this bond has reached beyond national or ethnic differences."

One country that ought to have a consulate in New Orleans but doesn't is nearby Mexico, thousands of whose nationals live in the metropolitan area. The Mexican Consulate here, in operation since 1826, was closed three years ago for budget reasons.

In the meantime, Lisa Ponce de León has been sort of Mexico's unofficial representative in Louisiana. A New Orleans native who grew up in Mexico City, she also runs the state's tax-free shopping program for foreign visitors.

"The Mexican government was the first foreign government to be present in Louisiana, helping immediately after Katrina," she said. "They had an office in Gonzalez, La., transporting people back and forth. We also had a Consulado Móvil [a mobile consulate that helped Mexican nationals replace passports and other documents lost in the hurricane]. They wanted to cancel it after Katrina, but I begged them not to."

Ponce de León added: "It's almost the end of [President] Vicente Fox's term and soon there will be elections in Mexico. Hopefully, the new president will see the need for reopening the consulate in New Orleans soon."

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