Most Ka­t­rina Aid From Over­seas Went Un­claimed

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By John Solomon and Spencer S. Hsu

As the winds and wa­ter of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina were re­ced­ing, pres­i­den­tial con­fi­dante Karen Hughes sent a cable from her State De­part­ment of­fice to U.S. am­bas­sadors world­wide.

Ti­tled “Echo-Cham­ber Mes­sage” — a pub­lic re­la­tions term for talk­ing points de­signed to be re­peated again and again — the Sept. 7, 2005, di­rec­tive was un­mis­tak­able: As­sure the scores of coun­tries that had pledged or do­nated aid at the height of the dis­as­ter that their largesse had pro­vided Amer­i­cans “prac­ti­cal help and moral sup­port” and “high­light the con­crete ben­e­fits hur­ri­cane vic­tims are re­ceiv­ing.”

Many of the U.S. diplo­mats who re­ceived the mes­sage, how­ever, were be­gin­ning to wit­ness a more em­bar­rass­ing re­al­ity. They knew the U.S. gov­ern­ment was turn­ing down many al­lies’ of­fers of man­power, sup­plies and ex­per­tise worth un­told mil­lions of dol­lars. Even­tu­ally the United States also would fail to col­lect most of the un­prece­dented out­pour­ing of in­ter­na­tional cash as­sis­tance for Ka­t­rina’s vic­tims.

Al­lies of­fered $854 mil­lion in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 mil­lion has been used so far for dis­as­ter vic­tims or re­con­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials and con­trac­tors. Most of the aid went un­col­lected, in­clud­ing $400 mil­lion worth of oil. Some of­fers were with­drawn or redi­rected to private groups such as the Red Cross. The rest has been de­layed by red tape and bu­reau­cratic lim­its on how it can be spent.

In ad­di­tion, valu­able sup­plies and ser­vices — such as cell­phone sys­tems, medicine and cruise ships — were de­layed or de­clined be­cause the gov­ern­ment could not han­dle

them. In some cases, sup­plies were wasted.

The strug­gle to ap­ply for­eign aid in the af­ter­math of the hur­ri­cane, which has cost U.S. tax­pay­ers more than $125 bil­lion so far, is an­other re­minder of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s dif­fi­culty lead­ing the re­cov­ery. Re­ports of gov­ern­ment waste and de­lays or de­nials of as­sis­tance have sur­faced re­peat­edly since hur­ri­canes Ka­t­rina and Rita struck in 2005.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged in Fe­bru­ary 2006 that they were ill pre­pared to co­or­di­nate and dis­trib­ute for­eign aid and that only about half the $126 mil­lion re­ceived had been put to use. Now, 20 months af­ter Ka­t­rina, newly re­leased doc­u­ments and in­ter­views make clear the mag­ni­tude of the trou­bles.

More than 10,000 pages of ca­bles, tele­graphs and e-mails from U.S. diplo­mats around the globe — re­leased piece­meal since last fall un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act — pro­vide a fuller ac­count of prob­lems that, at times, mys­ti­fied gen­er­ous al­lies and left U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives at a loss for an ex­pla­na­tion. The doc­u­ments were ob­tained by Cit­i­zens for Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ethics in Wash­ing­ton, a pub­lic in­ter­est group, which pro­vided them to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

In one ex­change, State De­part­ment of­fi­cials an­guished over whether to tell Italy that its ship­ments of medicine, gauze and other med­i­cal sup­plies spoiled in the el­e­ments for weeks af­ter Ka­t­rina’s land­fall on Aug. 29, 2005, and were de­stroyed. “Tell them we blew it,” one dis­gusted of­fi­cial wrote. But she hedged: “The flip side is just to dis­pose of it and not come clean. I could be per­suaded.”

In an­other in­stance, the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity ac­cepted an of­fer from Greece on Sept. 3, 2005, to dis­patch two cruise ships that could be used free as ho­tels or hos­pi­tals for dis­placed res­i­dents. The deal was re­scinded Sept. 15 af­ter it be­came clear a ship would not ar­rive be­fore Oct. 10. The U.S. even­tu­ally paid $249 mil­lion to use Car­ni­val Cruise Lines ves­sels.

And while television sets world­wide showed images of New Or­leans res­i­dents beg­ging to be res­cued from rooftops as flood­wa­ters rose, U.S. of­fi­cials turned down count­less of­fers of al­lied troops and searc­hand-res­cue teams. The most com­mon re­sponses: “sent let­ter of thanks” and “will keep of­fer on hand,” the new doc­u­ments show.

Over­all, the United States de­clined 54 of 77 recorded aid of­fers from three of its staunch­est al­lies: Canada, Bri­tain and Is­rael, ac­cord­ing to a 40-page State De­part­ment ta­ble of the of­fers that had been re­ceived as of Jan­uary 2006.

“There is a lack of ac­count­abil­ity in where the money comes in and where it goes,” said Me­lanie Sloan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the pub­lic in­ter­est group, which called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the fate of for­eign aid of­fers. She added: “It’s clear that they’re try­ing to hide their in­ep­ti­tude, in­com­pe­tence and malfea­sance.”

In a state­ment, State De­part­ment spokesman Tom Casey said that the U.S. gov­ern­ment sin­cerely ap­pre­ci­ated sup­port from around the world and that Ka­t­rina had proved to be “a unique event in many ways.”

“As we con­tinue our plan­ning for the fu­ture, we will draw on the lessons learned from this ex­pe­ri­ence to en­sure that we make the best use of any pos­si­ble for­eign as­sis­tance that might be of­fered,” Casey said.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of for­eign coun­tries de­clined to crit­i­cize the U.S. re­sponse to their aid of­fers, though some redi­rected their gifts.

Of $454 mil­lion in cash that was pledged by more than 150 coun­tries and for­eign or­ga­ni­za­tions, only $126 mil­lion from 40 donors was ac­tu­ally re­ceived. The big­gest gifts were from the United Arab Emi­rates, $100 mil­lion; China and Bahrain, $5 mil­lion each; South Korea, $3.8 mil­lion; and Tai­wan, $2 mil­lion.

Bader Bin Saeed, spokesman for the Emi­rates Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton, said that in fu­ture dis­as­ters, “the UAE would not hes­i­tate to help other coun­tries, whether the U.S. or any other state, in hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts.”

Kuwait, which made the largest of­fer, pledged $100 mil­lion in cash and $400 mil­lion in oil. But the Kuwaitis even­tu­ally gave their money to two private groups: $25 mil­lion to the Bush-Clin­ton Ka­t­rina Fund, a project of the for­mer pres­i­dents, and an­other $25 mil­lion to the Amer­i­can Red Cross in Fe­bru­ary 2006. They still plan to con­trib­ute an­other $50 mil­lion, said the Kuwaiti am­bas­sador to the United States, Salem Ab­dul­lah al-Jaber al-Sabah.

“It was based on my gov­ern­ment’s as­sess­ment of the fastest way to get money to the peo­ple that needed it,” he said. “The Red Cross was on the ground and ac­tion-ori­ented.”

In the White House’s Fe­bru­ary 2006 Ka­t­rina re­port, U.S. of­fi­cials said Kuwait’s $400 mil­lion oil do­na­tion was to be sold for cash. Sabah said it was an in-kind pledge made when it ap­peared that U.S. re­fin­ing ca­pac­ity was dev­as­tated and that the Amer­i­can pub­lic would need fuel.

“We have to see what we have to do with that. When you pledge some­thing in-kind, your in­ten­tion is to give it in-kind. I do not think now the Amer­i­can peo­ple are in need of $400 mil­lion of fuel and fuel prod­ucts,” he said.

Of the $126 mil­lion in cash that has been re­ceived, most has not yet been used. More than $60 mil­lion was set aside in March 2006 to re­build schools, col­leges and univer­si­ties, but so far, only $10.4 mil­lion has been taken by schools.

Half the $60 mil­lion was awarded last fall to 14 Louisiana and Mis- sis­sippi col­leges, but five have not started to claim the money. Only Dil­lard Univer­sity in Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi Gulf Coast Com­mu­nity Col­lege have tapped their full awards, worth $6 mil­lion, U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment of­fi­cials said Fri­day.

An­other $30 mil­lion was sent to Or­leans, St. Bernard and Plaque­m­ines parishes in Louisiana and to the state-run Re­cov­ery School Dis­trict in New Or­leans to build li­braries, lab­o­ra­to­ries and other fa­cil­i­ties for 130 pub­lic schools.

But none of that money has been used yet, said Meg Casper, spokes­woman for the Louisiana De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. Al­lo­ca­tions were just ap­proved by the state board last week, she said, “so the money should start to flow.”

The first con­crete pro­gram of­fi­cials an­nounced in Oc­to­ber 2005 — a $66 mil­lion con­tract to a con­sor­tium of 10 faith-based and char­ity groups to pro­vide so­cial ser­vices to dis­placed fam­i­lies — so far has as­sisted less than half the 100,000 vic­tims it promised to help, the project di­rec­tor said.

The group, led by the United Methodist Com­mit­tee on Re­lief, has spent $30 mil­lion of the money it was given to aid about 45,000 evac­uees. Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tors are ques­tion­ing some terms in the con­tract pro­posal, in­clud­ing a pro­vi­sion to pay con­sul­tants for 450 days to train vol­un­teers for the work the com­mit­tee was paid to do.

Jim Cox, the pro­gram di­rec­tor, said that the project is “right on track” but that its strat­egy of re­ly­ing on vol­un­teers foundered be­cause of burnout and high turnover. He ac­knowl­edged that more peo­ple need help than are re­ceiv­ing it and said the pro­gram will be ex­tended to March to use avail­able funds.

“The re­sources aren’t there, but th­ese re­sources cer­tainly are com­ing,” Cox said.

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