By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006
Sue Reed, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf Coast, was sitting in her temporary office in Biloxi, Miss., in April when the phone rang. She could not believe what she heard.
"My name is Jocelyn White, and I represent the ambassador and the country of Qatar," the caller said, adding that Reed's organization -- hit hard by Hurricane Katrina -- could be in line for millions of dollars of aid from the small, but oil-rich, Middle Eastern country.
"In my mind I thought, 'Who is this playing a joke?' " Reed recalled. "Calls usually were -- 'We're doing a bake sale and want to send the money.' "
But this was not a joke. Qatar's ambassador to the United States had heard that the Boys and Girls Clubs lost five buildings when the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast. In Pass Christian, Miss., one center that ran programs to help the city's 16- to 18-year-olds enter adulthood had been torn apart after 21 feet of water flooded it. All that was left was the roof.
The world saw what was happening and responded. The U.S. government was overwhelmed by offers of support from abroad that included $126 million in cash to assist federal programs. Hundreds of millions more came for private charities and organizations. A year later, much is left to be done and the aid is still coming.
Today Reed's will be one of a number of organizations to receive a large donation from Qatar. The country's U.S. ambassador, Nasser bin Hamad M. Al Khalifa, will announce $40 million in grants for educational, health and housing projects hurt by Katrina -- that is on top of the $60 million the country distributed in May. Among the grants, $5 million is directed to rebuild the Pass Christian club.
Sitting in his office at the Qatar Embassy in Washington recently, Khalifa explained why his country is so keen to help. This time last year, he and his family watched in shock as the news about Katrina unfolded. "I was hooked to the television like everyone else," he said. "We soon realized that the damage was worse than what people thought at the beginning."
His initial reaction was that "these are human beings like us -- brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons or daughters," he said. In Qatar, people watched news channels such as al-Jazeera and called in asking what they could do to help.
The emir of Qatar agreed to put forward $100 million to be distributed by the ambassador. "We thought, these people whose homes have been destroyed, tomorrow they will need a lot of help," Khalifa said.
The ambassador advised against a direct contribution to the federal government in case it could not track where the money went. Instead, his team would support the government by finding the victims most in need themselves. An advisory board that included former secretary of state James A. Baker III was set up to help choose the recipients.
While Qatar is one of the largest donors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 130 countries offered help, including cash contributions to the government, charities, hospitals and schools; and equipment and expert teams to help in the immediate aftermath.
According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the largest contributors included Kuwait, which gave hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and cash; Saudi Arabia, which donated cash to charities; and the United Arab Emirates, which gave money to the government.
Anne C. Richard, a vice president at the IRC and the author of the report "Role Reversal: Offers of Help From Other Countries in Response to Hurricane Katrina" said the federal government initially fumbled, resisted and mishandled some offers of international help. For example, 500,000 meals-ready-to-eat sent by the British government were never used because the U.S. Department for Agriculture blocked them out of concern about mad cow disease.
The report, primarily based on interviews with key U.S. government officials and international experts and diplomats, said the Bush administration, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, maintained that international help was not needed. When the State Department reversed its decision, it took more than a week to set up a system to vet offers and donations.
While the federal government has been widely criticized for its response to Katrina, Khalifa is a defender, saying the disaster reached "biblical magnitude."
"People think governments have a magic touch; they can say, 'We will do things' and it will happen," he said.
"Personally, I didn't think the damage was as much as it was until I myself went to New Orleans. There were no human beings, while a few months before there had been more than 200,000 people. It is like I wake up one morning and my people are not in their homes."
He described a scene where some houses had been thrown hundreds of yards and others were full of sand. "I put myself in the position of people who were there; it must have been so frightening," Khalifa said.
Such scenes compelled the international community to help, as described by the IRC report. The Netherlands and Germany sent water pumps and expert teams to help empty the floodwaters from New Orleans, the Canadian military and coast guard came to work with their U.S. counterparts, and Japan and China sent generators.
The French sought to protect the Gulf Coast's culture with a program to bring jazz, Creole and Cajun musicians to France for concert tours, while the Hungarian ambassador's rock band, the Coalition of the Willing, held a fundraising concert at the House of Blues in Cleveland.
"I think most Americans have little understanding about the extent to which other countries were moved and concerned," Richard said.