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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)

"As far as I know, it's still on the ground," said Claes Thorson, press counselor at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. He said that along with 20 other European Union nations that have pledged aid, "We are ready to send our things. We know they are needed, but what seems to be a problem is getting all these offers into the country."

So far, Thorson said, the State Department has denied Sweden's request for flight clearance. "We don't know exactly why, but we have a suspicion that the system is clogged on the receiving end," he said. "But we keep a request alive all the time, so we are not forgotten."

German telecommunications company KB Impuls contacted another company, Unisat, based in Rhode Island, with the idea of contributing an integrated satellite and cellular telephone system.

In a region with its communications systems in tatters, the $3 million system could handle 5,000 calls at once, routing them, if necessary, through Germany.

KB Impuls would contribute the equipment and two engineers, supplied with their own food, water and generator fuel, to set it up. Unisat contacted another firm, New Skies Satellite, with offices in Washington, which agreed to contribute satellite capacity.

New Skies even arranged transport, securing a C-130 cargo plane from the Israeli air force, to pick up the equipment and technicians from Germany and bring them to Louisiana. "With one call, I got an airplane," Hemy said. And then, over four days, she and the owner of Unisat, Uri Bar-Zemer, called contacts at FEMA, the American Red Cross, the State Department, even members of Congress, trying to find someone to accept the gift.

Finally the State Department told them that to receive flight clearance, the gift must have a specific recipient. "I was ringing, ringing, ringing -- and nothing," Hemy said. Finally, yesterday, she got a call from the U.S. Air Force's Joint Task Force Katrina Communication Operations division, thanking the companies for the gift and inquiring about the system's technical specifications.

As of late yesterday, the companies were waiting for a written order from the Northern Command to begin the mission. "I don't have a problem confirming that," Bar-Zemer said of the story. But he expressed concerns that disclosing the difficulties in donating could jeopardize the company's chances of actually delivering the aid.

Staff writers Robin Wright and Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.


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