Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Whose Minding the Store?

September 7th, 2005 1:11 pm
Foreign offers of help ready, waiting

By Elizabeth Williamson / Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Offers of foreign aid worth tens of millions of dollars — including a Swedish water-purification system, a German cellular-telephone network and two Canadian rescue ships — have been delayed for days awaiting review by backlogged federal agencies, according to European diplomats and information collected by the State Department.

Since Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, more than 90 countries and international organizations have offered to assist in recovery efforts for the flood-stricken region, but nearly all endeavors remained mired yesterday in bureaucratic entanglements — in most cases, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In Germany, a massive telecommunication system and two technicians await the green light to fly to Louisiana, after its donors spent four days searching for someone willing to accept the gift.

"FEMA? That was a lost cause," said Mirit Hemy, an executive with the Netherlands-based New Skies Satellite, who made the phone calls. "We got zero help, and we lost one week trying to get hold of them."

In Sweden, a transport plane loaded with a water-purification system and a cellular network has been ready to take off for four days, while Swedish officials wait for flight clearance. Nearly a week after they were offered, four Canadian rescue vessels and two helicopters have been accepted but probably won't arrive from Halifax, Nova Scotia, until Saturday. The Canadians' offer of search-and-rescue divers has gone begging.

Matching offers of aid — from Panamanian bananas to British engineers — with needs in the devastated Gulf region is difficult in a disaster whose scope is unheard-of in recent U.S. history, especially for a country that is more accustomed to giving than receiving aid.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that to his knowledge, all offers of foreign aid have been accepted but must be vetted by emergency-relief specialists.

"I think the experts will take a look at exactly what is needed now," he said.

FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said the foreign complaints echo those from governors and officials across the nation.

"There has been that common thought that because [offers of aid] are not tapped immediately, they're not prudently used," Rule said. "We are pulling everything into a centralized database. We are trying not to suck everything in all at once, whether we need it or not."

Soon after the flooding, the government of Sweden offered a C-130 Hercules transport plane, loaded with water-purification equipment, and a cellular network donated by Ericsson.

"As far as I know, it's still on the ground," said Claes Thorson, press counselor at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. He said that along with 20 other European Union nations that have pledged money and goods, "We are ready to send our things. We know they are needed, but what seems to be a problem is getting all these offers into the country."

So far, Thorson said, the State Department has denied Sweden's request for flight clearance.

German telecommunications company KB Impuls contacted another company, Unisat, based in Rhode Island, with the idea of contributing an integrated satellite and cellular-telephone system.

The $3 million system could handle 5,000 calls at once, routing them, if necessary, through Germany.

The donor, KB Impuls, would contribute the equipment and two engineers, supplied with their own food, water and generator fuel, to set it up. Unisat contacted another firm, New Skies Satellite, based in the Netherlands with offices in Washington, which agreed to contribute satellite capacity.

New Skies arranged transport, securing a C-130 cargo plane from the Israeli Air Force, to pick up the equipment and technicians from Germany and bring them to Louisiana.

"With one call, I got an airplane," Hemy said. For four days, she and the owner of Unisat, Uri Bar-Zemer, called contacts at FEMA, the American Red Cross, the State Department and members of Congress, trying to find someone to accept the gift.

Finally, the State Department told them that to receive flight clearance, the gift must have a specific recipient.

"I was ringing, ringing, ringing — and nothing," Hemy said. Finally, yesterday, she got a call from the U.S. Air Force Joint Task Force Katrina Communication Operations division, thanking the companies for the gift and inquiring about the system's technical specifications.

As of late yesterday the companies were waiting for a written order from the Northern Command to begin the mission.

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