Foreign Giving

Offers of Aid Immediate, but U.S. Approval Delayed for Days

Members of the Salvadoran special forces prepare radio equipment for transport to New Orleans to help in recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
Members of the Salvadoran special forces prepare radio equipment for transport to New Orleans to help in recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. (By Luis Romero -- Associated Press)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Offers of foreign aid worth tens of millions of dollars -- including a Swedish water purification system, a German cellular telephone network and two Canadian rescue ships -- have been delayed for days awaiting review by backlogged federal agencies, according to European diplomats and information collected by the State Department.

Since Hurricane Katrina, more than 90 countries and international organizations offered to assist in recovery efforts for the flood-stricken region, but nearly all endeavors remained mired yesterday in bureaucratic entanglements, in most cases, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Germany, a massive telecommunication system and two technicians await the green light to fly to Louisiana, after its donors spent four days searching for someone willing to accept the gift.

"FEMA? That was a lost case," said Mirit Hemy, an executive with the Netherlands-based New Skies Satellite who made the phone calls. "We got zero help, and we lost one week trying to get hold of them."

In Sweden, a transport plane loaded with a water purification system and a cellular network has been ready to take off for four days, while Swedish officials wait for flight clearance. Nearly a week after they were offered, four Canadian rescue vessels and two helicopters have been accepted but probably won't arrive from Halifax, Nova Scotia, until Saturday. The Canadians' offer of search-and-rescue divers has so far gone begging.

Matching offers of aid -- from Panamanian bananas to British engineers -- with needs in the devastated region is a laborious process in a disaster whose scope is unheard of in recent U.S. history, especially for a country more accustomed to giving than receiving aid.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that to his knowledge, all offers of foreign aid have been accepted and some have arrived, such as Air Canada's flights to relocate displaced people. But many others must be vetted by emergency relief specialists. "I think the experts will take a look at exactly what is needed now," he said.

FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said the foreign complaints echo those from governors and officials "across the nation."

"There has been that common thought that because [offers of aid] are not tapped immediately, they're not prudently used," Rule said. "We are pulling everything into a centralized database. We are trying not to suck everything in all at once, whether we need it or not."

European diplomats said publicly that they understand the difficulty of coordinating such a massive recovery effort. In an open letter released yesterday, though, Ambassador John Bruton, head of the Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, wrote:

"Perhaps one of those lessons will be that rugged individualism is not always enough in such a crisis, particularly if an individual does not have the material and psychological means to escape the fury of a hurricane in time."

Soon after the flooding, the government of Sweden offered a C-130 Hercules transport plane, loaded with water purification equipment, and a cellular network donated by Ericsson.

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