Katrina Aid: When the World Wanted to Help America
In the following opinion piece published this week in the International Herald Tribune, International Rescue Committee vice president Anne Richard said that lessons from Hurricane Katrina could contribute to a more effective American and global crisis response:
When other countries rushed to help America after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government bungled it - replying to offers of help from overseas with mixed signals, indecision and delay. President George W. Bush said America did not need help; the State Department announced the same day that no offer would be refused; and managers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency balked at going outside the United States for help.
On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. emergency management system needs to get in sync with the rest of the world. The United States must recognize that it could suffer a catastrophic disaster - a hurricane or an act of terror - in which foreign help might be necessary or useful.
After Katrina, a planeload of communications equipment sat on a runway in Sweden, arriving 11 days later and too late to use. The Swiss offer of an airplane full of relief supplies was canceled after FEMA asked for only a portion - which would have required unloading and reloading the plane. Response teams from Austria, Hungary, and Jordan were ignored or rejected.
The British quickly sent 500,000 ready-to-eat meals after a U.S. request, but inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped distribution for fear of spreading mad cow disease.
By mid-September, an ad hoc system to vet in-kind contributions was operating. Aid offers ended up coming in from more than 130 countries and a dozen international organizations; 42 cargo planeloads of relief supplies arrived from overseas.
Some of the contributions proved immensely helpful. The Vancouver Urban Search and Rescue team was among the first on the scene, rescuing 119 people stranded by flood waters. The Mexican Army ran a canteen in San Antonio, Texas for relief workers and evacuees. NATO organized flights of relief supplies and Unicef school kits helped young evacuees.
The most practical contribution was money; $126 million in cash (80 percent of it from the United Arab Emirates) is going to programs to help evacuees and affected schools. Hundreds of millions more from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are going directly to charities, hospitals and schools. Millions more have been donated by corporations based outside the United States.
While America was tempted to try to go it alone in its response to the hurricane, some of the contributions from other countries were essential. Lessons from these stories of international aid suggest that more could be done, both by the United States and the international community, to be better prepared for next time.
America should be prepared to vet and handle foreign offers of assistance after a large-scale crisis. The State Department should issue a preapproved list of useful goods and services, developed with input from other agencies and disaster experts. In addition, rules must be developed regarding which regulations (like those governing food inspections and use of doctors from overseas) can be waived during an emergency.
The outcome should be a system that responds to needs in the field and not to desires of donors - preventing shipments of unneeded contributions while taking into consideration legitimate foreign policy objectives.
After Katrina, pre-existing arrangements allowed for interoperability: Canadian divers worked seamlessly with the U.S. Navy to clear navigational hazards and inspect damaged levees, reflecting years training together. Dutch public-works engineers already had a memorandum of agreement to collaborate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the two agencies are collaborating more today - to the benefit of both countries. Joint exercises and drills in which personnel get a chance to practice working together and establish standard terminology and practices are necessary.
Developed nations need to reach agreement on the best ways to respond to disaster, not just in international hot spots but also in their own countries. The international community should adopt standards, including a uniform list of goods recommended for stockpiling, so that there is never any question about their utility. NATO and the European Union do have disaster centers, but efforts should be broadened to include experts from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina could contribute to more effective American and global crisis response; these examples of international goodwill should inspire American leadership and action.
Anne C. Richard is vice president of the International Rescue Committee and a nonresident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University.