Federal Refusal of Hurricane Aid Outrages Louisiana Governor

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana, April 30, 2007 (ENS) - Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said today she is "disappointed and frustrated" by the refusal of the federal government to accept millions of dollars in aid and other assistance offered by U.S. allies in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Bush administration turned down multiple offers of aid and support from U.S. allies, according to more than 10,000 pages of cables, telegraphs and emails from U.S. diplomats obtained by a nonprofit watchdog group under the Freedom of Information Act.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW, provided the documents to the "Washington Post," which reported their existence on Sunday.

"It is shocking to know that while thousands across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast were suffering from the greatest disaster in U.S. history, the federal government repeatedly refused to accept or wasted the aid our citizens so desperately needed," Governor Blanco said.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco speaks about hurricane preparedness to officials from the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (Photo by Robert Kaufman courtesy FEMA)
According to the documents, the Bush administration turned down 54 of the 77 offers from three of its biggest allies - Canada, England and Israel.

"As our people were fighting for survival, governments around the world tried to help us, but our own federal government turned them away," the governor said. "This latest revelation of incompetence burns the wounds our people are desperately trying to heal."

Records show that allies offered $854 million in cash and contributions of oil that was to be sold for cash, but only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction.

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who serves as chairman of the Disaster Recovery Subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the committee will hold hearings this summer to fully investigate the matter.


Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (Photo courtesy DLC)
Landrieu called the revelations "yet another example of the seemingly endless incompetence that has been the trademark of this administration's response to the hurricanes and the devastating failure of the federal levee system."

"We will ask the hard questions, and we will get to the bottom of how this administration could so foolishly turn away an outstretched hand in a time of such desperate need," the senator said.

The rejected offers included medical teams, search-and-rescue units, body bags, bottled water, food, fuel and trained rescue dogs from Poland, according to documents obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

Also turned down or stalled by bureaucratic delays were offers of two cruise ships by the Greek government for use as medical facilities and to house workers and displaced residents to be used without charge. The federal government later paid $249 million to rent ships from Carnival Cruise Lines.

The United States didn't have a system to process so many simultaneous offers of assistance, and if another disaster of the scale of Katrina occurred, it still would be unable to accept most aid, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans in the early morning hours of August 29, 2005. Offers of aid from outside the United States arrived steadily as the gravity of the hurricane damage became apparent.

Initially, President George W. Bush suggested to the international community that the United States did not need foreign assistance.

New Orleans

FEMA Logistics Specialist and Community Relations worker view damage to homes and property in the Lower 9th Ward from to Hurricane Katrina. September 20, 2005. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)
On a September 1, 2005 broadcast of Good Morning America, the president said that the country was prepared to handle all aid internally. "I do expect a lot of sympathy and perhaps some will send cash dollars," the President said of foreign governments. "But this country's going to rise up and take care of it."

But within 24 hours, the government's view had changed. Documents produced by by the State Department show that by September 2, the agency had directed all Chiefs of Mission to accept all international aid offers "in principle."

State Department documents show that foreign governments pledged over $360 million in monetary relief. This included large cash pledges from Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates - $100 million each - as well as small, but significant offers of aid from impoverished countries such as Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

At least 126 countries pledged relief in the form of cash, personnel or supplies. Monetary relief was quickly accepted, but other aid was often delayed or rejected.

"Bottom line – US cannot accept help of foreign medical professionals or foreign drugs for liability reasons. Only assistance of that type we are prepared to accept is forensics to deal with identification of human remains," wrote State Department official David Kostelancik, email to Michael J. Dodman of the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic, September 7, 2005.

Foreign governments with the ability to transport their aid to the United States were even warned not to send their aid to the closest U.S. Air Base at Little Rock, Arkansas, for fear that it would not be able to handle the assistance.

New Orleans

Ceola Perkins returns to her destroyed home in New Orleans' Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents and businesses were displaced. October 17, 2005. (Photo by Andrea Booher courtesy FEMA)
The State Department was responsive to offers of aid, but was hamstrung by other federal agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID/OFDA, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

"For your information," one State Department official explained in an email obtained by CREW, "the way the process is working is that State submits to USAID/OFDA the offers of international assistance. OFDA then submits them to FEMA. Everyone is left waiting until FEMA makes a decision. Once FEMA makes a decision, they notify OFDA, which tells State, and the logistics process for the flights begins. Throughout the last week, as you have seen, it often takes quite some time for FEMA to make a decision about accepting aid. State’s role in the issue is really to act as a liaison between the foreign govts and OFDA and FEMA."

State Department documents show that:

  • Bangladesh offered $1 million in aid and a disaster management team. The monetary aid was accepted, but the disaster management team was ultimately turned down on September 14, 2005.

  • Pakistan offered doctors and paramedics, $1 million to the American Red Cross, tents, sheets and pillows. The monetary aid was accepted, but the material aid was ultimately turned down on September 14, 2005.

  • Honduras offered experts on flooding, sanitation and rescue personnel. This aid was turned down on October 6, 2005.

  • Peru offered to send doctors, food, blankets, bandages and clothing. The bandages were accepted on September 5, 2005, but delivery was delayed pending an assessment of needs. Although the bandages were delivered, on November 9, 2005, Peru was informed that the other aid was not needed.

  • The Netherlands offered a frigate carrying emergency assistance and a levee inspection team. The aid was accepted on September 6, 2005, and arrived on September 12, 2005.

  • Denmark offered blankets, shelters and first aid kits. The aid was delivered to Little Rock Air Force Base on September 9, 2005. Other aid, including water purification equipment, was turned down on September 10, 2005.

  • Israel offered medical equipment, tents, baby formula and electric generators. A relief flight containing some of this aid arrived in the United States on September 10, 2005. The electric generators were turned down on September 12, 2005.

  • Sweden offered telecommunications aid from Ericsson and a relief flight. While Sweden was ready to fly the materials over to the United States by September 4, 2005, miscommunication delayed the go-ahead on the flight until September 7, 2005. The equipment and transport were formally accepted on September 9, 2005, and the equipment was delivered September 13, 2005.