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Hurricane Katrina

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Radix:  Radical Interpretations of and Solutions for Disasters

Hurricane Katrina

At the end of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the U.S.A's Gulf of Mexico coastline, resulting in what might be one of the most lethal disasters to date in the U.S.A. and one of the most expensive disasters involving environmental phenomena so far. This disaster struck during the second term of President George W. Bush as the U.S.A. was becoming increasingly isolated internationally. The international response, though, tended towards sympathy and desire to help. The following Hurricane Katrina Disaster Diplomacy issues are explored:

Countries and International Organisations with Significant Conflict with the U.S.A.

As of 9 September 2005, several countries and international organisations have offered aid despite significant sources of conflict or recent political disagreement with the U.S.A. Enmity with the U.S.A. ranges from past and possibly future violent conflict (e.g. Cuba and Iran) to diplomatic ice mainly due to the Iraq war (e.g. France and Spain and hence the EU despite splits within that organisation) to mutual dislike and distrust (e.g. China and Mexico). The summary is:

  • China
             Offered $5 million aid and rescue workers, including medical experts.

  • Cuba
             Offered more than 1,000 doctors and over 26 tons of medical supplies. On 1 September 2005, Castro held one minute of silence for Hurricane Katrina's victims and then the Cuban parliament passed a resolution attacking President Bush and the American government.

  • EU (European Union)
             The U.S.A. officially requested emergency assistance from the EU in the form of first aid kits, blankets, water trucks, and prepared meals which were soon delivered. The EU executive Commission's Civil Protection Mechanism is coordinating member states' offers, which included offers beyond that which was requested. Romania, not yet an EU member, is providing medical teams as part of the EU's assistance. BBC comments "The US may not really need baby food from Italy or divers from Belgium, but its call for European and international help shows that, after the divisions over Iraq, it has now realised that even superpowers need friends."

  • France
             Provided tents, generators, and water purifying plants amongst other materials. A French NGO offered to send a team to repair phone lines and internet service and a French company offered to assist with water supply.

  • Germany
             The German environment minister wrote an opinion piece on 30 August which blamed the American President's stance on global warming for increasing disaster effects. On 31 August and 1 September, the German government offered aid, including 25 tonnes of food, emergency shelter, and services for medicine, transportation, water treatment capabilities, and search and rescue.

  • India
             Offered $5 million plus medicine, a medical team, and water purification systems.

  • Iran
             Offered 20 million barrels of crude oil, although sanctions might inhibit delivery. BBC Reports.

  • Mexico
             Sending $1 million, water, food, medical supplies, vehicles, and equipment. Much more was offered than was accepted. The Mexican army delivered supplies, crossing into American territory. BBC Reports.

  • Russia
             Sent medical supplies, food, tents, blankets, drinking water, and portable electricity generators.

  • Spain
             As part of the International Energy Agency's plan, Spain is providing 70,000 barrels a day of oil for 30 days along with food, batteries, medicine, and a Red Cross delegation.

  • UN (United Nations)
             Despite the American government's disinterest in strong outcomes from the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in January 2005 and continuing attempts to tone down the outcomes from the 2005 World Summit in September 2005, the UN offered assistance which was accepted by the American government on 3 September 2005. The inter-agency teams comprise representatives from the World Food Programme (WFP), Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Health Organization (WHO), and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as support teams from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)/United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) network.

  • Venezuela
             Offered to send food, oil, water and aid workers plus soldiers to help tackle looting in New Orleans. Just before Hurricane Katrina, Venezuela's president had offered cheap gas to poor Americans and free eye surgery for Americans without health care access. No official reaction could be found to these offers.

Other Disaster Diplomacy Links

Other than Countries and international organisations with significant conflict with the U.S.A., the following links to Disaster Diplomacy are relevant, updated as of 9 September 2005:

  • Disasters Charter
             The Disasters Charter has been signed by the space agencies: European Space Agency (ESA), Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE) , and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). For Hurricane Katrina, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) activated the charter on 1 September 2005 and French Civil Protection activated the charter on 2 September 2005.

  • IEA (International Energy Agency)
             Agreed on 2 September 2005 to provide 60 million barrels of oil and gas products over the next month. Considering all the disastrous diplomacy wrought by the U.S.A. due to oil-related issues, from war to environmental protection, it is ironic that the IEA countries are willing to satiate the U.S.A.'s overdemand for oil.

  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
             In addition to requesting first aid kits, blankets, and food, the U.S.A. asked NATO to help transport the EU aid using the new NRF (NATO Response Force). An interesting situation in that the U.S.A. proposed the NATO rapid reaction force and opposed the E.U. rapid reaction force. Now, E.U. aid is being transported by NATO to help the U.S.A.

  • Tsunami Diplomacy Link
             Some of the quickest offers of aid came from countries affected by the 26 December 2004, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand (see also India above). Comments from these countries suggested that they remembered the Americans' generosity and wished to reciprocate, even to the extent of Sri Lanka calling its $25,000 donation "a token contribution".
             A new realm of disaster diplomacy opens up: Would providing aid to a country--enemy, friend, or in between--lead to a similar future response? Does tit-for-tat exist? Would not providing aid to a country--enemy, friend, or in between--lead to a similar future response?

  • U.S.A. Reaction
             The American government's initial reaction was to try to avoid accepting external assistance. On 1 September 2005, President Bush stated "I'm not expecting much from foreign nations because we haven't asked for it. I do expect a lot of sympathy, and perhaps some will send cash dollars. But this country is going to rise up and take care of it...You know, we would love help, but we're going to take care of our own business as well, and there's no doubt in my mind we'll succeed."
             Later, the State Department mentioned "We will accept all offers of foreign assistance. Anything that can be of help to alleviate the difficult situation, the tragic situation of the people of the area affected by Hurricane Katrina will be accepted... America should be heartened by the fact that the world is reaching out to America at a time of need" while denying a change in position. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that "no offers of assistance will be refused".


  • By Ben Wisner (12 September 2005):
             Katrina disaster diplomacy serves as a baseline for monitoring furture developments. For example, tensions around economic and trade issues are not singled out explicitly, instead mentioning "significant sources of conflict or recent political disagreement." It would be good to look more closely at the kinds of geopolitical and economic conflicts subsumed in this general statement.
             Also, one might ask if in the future such positive offers of assistance have any impact on the negotiating climate and resolution of such disputes and conflicts. This is a broader question (and one, of course, more difficult to answer) than simply whether assistance gestures are likely to be reciprocated.

  • Richard, A.C. 2006. Role Reversal: Offers of Help from Other Countries in Response to Hurricane Katrina and Reversión de Roles: Ofertas de Ayuda de Otros Países en Respuesta al Huracán Katrina. Center for Transatlantic Relations, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

  • By Richard Ferring (12 September 2007):
             Hurricane Katrina was one of the USA's most devastating recent disasters. Forming in late August 2005, the category one storm grew quickly to a dangerous category five hurricane as it travelled across the Gulf of Mexico before declining to category three when it made landfall into southern Louisiana. The hurricane breached the flood protection system causing the levees to fail and flood over 80% of New Orleans. The storm claimed at least 1,836 lives and caused over US$80 billion in damage to property in Louisiana.
             The effects of Hurricane Katrina were immense. Federal disaster declarations spanned over 90,000 square miles. As well as the municipal buildings, bridges, and other properties that were destroyed, over 130,000 homes were damaged beyond repair. Immense amounts of raw sewage, petroleum products, and industrial waste were introduced into the environment. Perhaps the most overlooked danger was the release of asbestos particles into the air and water. Because many buildings and structures were built with asbestos due its ability to withstand fire and heat, asbestos was used commonly in the construction of many older buildings.
             After Hurricane Katrina passed, thousands of people were exposed to the "toxic aftermath". Many people have, or will soon, experience the effects of this exposure. Several illnesses such as rashes, "noxious nausea", and respiratory diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis have and will continue to be prominent in the area.
             Shortly after the news of the damage and loss of life were reported, people from many countries were seeking ways to assist those in need. CITGO Petroleum Corporation, a Venezuelan entity, sent their CEO Felix Rodriguez to Lake Charles, Louisiana to offer assistance. Rodriguez met with several state and federal officials and, to help with the relief effort, negotiated a donation of US$1 million, oil, food, and equipment coming from CITGO but on behalf of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.
             While some people donated money through various charities and organizations, others quickly travelled to the surrounding areas to assist with the clean up. Belgium sent several specialized teams to assist. Three medical teams consisting of 31 personnel, a diving team, and several engineering and logistics groups travelled thousands of miles to be present at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
             The devastation of Hurricane Katrina will not soon be forgotten by the world. The social, environmental, industrial, and economic implications of the disaster will be felt long after the city of New Orleans is rebuilt. The dangers that the storm left behind were an imminent threat to the people around them; however, thanks to the help from several countries from around the world, they have been reduced. Pain and suffering knows no political or social boundaries. In times of need, people band together under one common trait: humanity.

  • By Shelly L. Bell (6 March 2008):
             On the morning of 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew into southern Louisiana and quickly became the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. The hurricane's devastating storm surge was so powerful that it forever changed the coastline along the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The city of New Orleans was one of the hardest-hit areas. The violent storm surge destroyed the federal flood protection system and caused 53 separate levee breaches, which led to the flooding of more than 80 percent of the historic city.
             Accountable for a minimum of $81.2 billion in damage, Hurricane Katrina is one of the costliest disasters in the history of the United States. The tempest and its aftermath claimed at least 1,836 lives and 705 are still missing—making it the deadliest hurricane since the Okeechobee Hurricane hit in 1928. Pure destruction made New Orleans both a dangerous and highly toxic place. Structural damage from the storm and the following cleanup efforts released serious toxins into the surrounding air and water. Plausible sources of pollutants included spills of volatile chemicals, leaks from industrial plants, and dust from building demolition, debris transport, and contaminated sediment, not to mention smoke from the open burning of debris. Because of its tremendous prevalence in the construction industry, one of the major contaminants of concern was asbestos. This concern is because of the fact that exposure can lead to multiple forms of asbestos cancer.
             According to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website on Hurricane Katrina, all structures (including residential and commercial) build before 1975 may hold "significant amounts of asbestos". The EPA also acknowledged that structures built after 1975 may also contain asbestos, as the toxic material was widely used through the eighties and remains in regulated use to this day. Unfortunately, thousands of people were exposed to the toxic brew in the aftermath of the storm. Many of these individuals have or will develop health issues from exposure to toxins like that of asbestos, which is known to cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cancer.
             In the aftermath, the United States received a myriad of assistance offers from foreign states in the form of monetary support, supplies, medical professionals, and even contamination experts to aid in cleanup efforts. Despite the hazardous threat from toxins such as asbestos, many foreign countries, both known allies and adversaries, offered human resources to help in the aftermath. For example, Israel sent an 80-ton shipment of humanitarian aid, as well as a team of physicians, psychologists, trauma specialists, logistics experts, and search-and-rescue divers. The team arrived in New Orleans on 10 September and spent a week and a half providing much needed aid.
             Numerous other countries offered human resources like that of Israel. In addition, monetary and oil offers amounted to $854 million. But according to an April 2007 article in the Washington Post, only $40 million has been used for survivors or reconstruction. More than two years later, the city of New Orleans is still dealing with hurricane-related debris and thousands of irreparable asbestos-contaminated homes. Unfortunately, a sense of normalcy has yet to be restored to New Orleans, and as cleanup efforts linger, so does the eminent risk for human exposure to asbestos and development of pleural mesothelioma. Despite philanthropic offers from both foreign friends and foes, money and time constraints continue to compromise cleanup efforts and safety concerning asbestos abatement.

  • Daan van der Linde (November 2008):
    The Politics of Disaster: A Study into Post-Katrina International Aid. (842 kb in PDF). An additional note is that statements implying that Katrina was the first time that the U.S.A. needed, requested, or accepted international aid generally came from official and publicly available U.S.A. government documents. That statement is a short-term view of history, because some (non-Katrina) media sources suggest that the 1906 earthquake garnered millions of dollars of international aid, with the largest donor being Japan.

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