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

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.

"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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