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US Rejected Millions in Katrina Foreign Aid

May 7, 2007 by  


Courtesy Black America Web.com, News Report, Monica Lewis, Posted: May 01, 2007

Editor’s Note: Federal agencies used a small fraction of more than $800 million in Hurricane Katrina assistance offered by foreign governments.

This past weekend, protesters marched in frustration over the fact that many parts of Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans remain in utter despair.

So imagine Ann Duplessis’ dismay upon finding out that many offerings of support from overseas nations went unclaimed by the federal government.

“When I first heard this, I thought, “Oh, my God,’” Duplessis, a member of Louisiana’s state senate, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “For us to have the funds that don’t need to go through the red tape and not get them, that’s just unheard of. It’s very disappointing.”

Duplessis is not alone in having a hard time understanding why federal agencies used a small fraction of more than $800 million in Hurricane Katrina assistance offered by foreign governments. This apparent mismanagement of funds has recently come to light after a study released by Citizens for responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private watchdog group.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu told The Times-Picayune she would ask the Bush administration why foreign aid was neglected.

“Louisiana and the Gulf Coast deserve better,” Landrieu said. “And while we did not seek handouts, a hand-up was and remains sorely needed.”

Among the items reportedly rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies include medical teams, search-and-rescue units, body bags, bottled water, food and fuel. Specially-trained Polish rescue dogs, which could have helped in finding stranded residents, were also amongst the in-kind donations from abroad that never were put to good use.

Bureaucratic red tape may also have delayed two large Greek cruise ships offered by Greek government officials for housing medical facilities, workers and displaced residents.

Duplessis, who returned to her office from session to find information on the report, said it just doesn’t make sense that such assistance would be turned away or not accepted in full.

“There are still many parts of New Orleans that need support,” Duplessis told BlackAmericaWeb.com, adding that the oversight probably doesn’t reflect a grateful nation to those foreign countries that offered support.

“It doesn’t shed a very positive light on things,” Duplessis said, especially as the media continues to show the slow progress that much of New Orleans is experiencing in its rebuilding.

“Here (these countries) have extended an olive branch as we’re crying for help and support,” Duplessis said. “They’re sending us support, and we’re not taking advantage of it.”

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.

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, admitting 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.

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).

ader Bin Saeed, spokesman for the Emirates Embassy in Washington, told The Washington Post 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.

“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 Mississippi 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, told The Washington Post that the project is “right on track,” but that its strategy of relying on volunteers floundered 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,” Cox said, “but these resources certainly are coming.”

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