WASHINGTON – 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.
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 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 Some offers were withdrawn or redirected to private groups such as the Red Cross.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 cell phone 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.
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.
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.”
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 search-and-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.
In a statement, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the U.S. government sincerely appreciated support from around the world and 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.
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 an additional $50 million.