These are the stories that embolden our enemies — John Solomon and Spencer S. Hsu write in today’s Washington Post that our government turned down “offers of manpower, supplies and expertise worth untold millions of dollars” from other nations after the Katrina disaster. And much of what wasn’t turned down, was wasted.
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 Some offers were withdrawn or redirected to private groups such as the Red Cross.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.
Let’s see — I dimly remember that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was put in charge of coordinating assistance coming from other countries — yes, here we are: The Associated Press, September 1, 2005:
With offers from the four corners of the globe pouring in, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has decided “no offer that can help alleviate the suffering of the people in the afflicted area will be refused,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.
According to the Think Progress Katrina Timeline, on September 1 — the same day this news story was released — Condi Rice was at a tennis match. “Rice, [in New York] on three days’ vacation to shop and see the U.S. Open, hitting some balls with retired champ Monica Seles at the Indoor Tennis Club at Grand Central.” [New York Post]. She was also seen shopping for shoes —
“Just moments ago at the Ferragamo on 5th Avenue, Condoleeza Rice was seen spending several thousands of dollars on some nice, new shoes (we’ve confirmed this, so her new heels will surely get coverage from the WaPo’s Robin Givhan). A fellow shopper, unable to fathom the absurdity of Rice’s timing, went up to the Secretary and reportedly shouted, ‘How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!’” [Gawker]
Those were some damn expensive shoes.
By September 2 Condi managed to release a statement thanking the international community for its its “offers to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”
Rice said every contribution is important and that over the past few days she has been in contact with a wide range of officials from other nations and international organizations to respond to the offers of support. The State Department, she said, is coordinating closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to match these offers of support with the needs “on the ground.“
Let’s go back to the WaPo article to see what happened on September 3.
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 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, according to a 40-page State Department table of the offers that had been received as of January 2006.
You’ll get a kick out of this bit:
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.”
Sometimes the foreign governments read about the waste in the newspapers. Ryan Parry reported in the Mirror (UK) that millions of dollars worth of rations got caught up in red tape and wasted.
Instead tons of the badly needed NATO ration packs, the same as those eaten by British troops in Iraq, has been condemned as unfit for human consumption.
And unless the bureaucratic mess is cleared up soon it could be sent for incineration.
One British aid worker last night called the move “sickening senselessness” and said furious colleagues were “spitting blood”.
The food, which cost British taxpayers millions, is sitting idle in a huge warehouse after the Food and Drug Agency recalled it when it had already left to be distributed.
Scores of lorries headed back to a warehouse in Little Rock, Arkansas, to dump it at an FDA incineration plant.
This is coming out now because a group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) obtained documentation — cables, emails and letters — through the Freedom of Information Act and painstakingly put them together. You can read some of the documents they gathered on the CREW web site.
The WaPo article truly is jaw dropping. The U.S. received offers of cash from 150 nations and foreign organizations totaling $454 million, but our government managed to collect only $126 million. In many cases the foreign governments eventually gave up trying to give money to the State Department and handed it to the Red Cross instead. But then Kuwait sent $400 million worth of oil, thinking we could use it because of damage to refineries, but the U.S. sold the oil for cash. Millions of dollars allocated to public schools and state colleges have yet to be used. I infer that many of these delays are as much the fault of state governments as the federal government. But then there’s this:
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.
You’d think that with $66 million they could have paid people to do the work that was needed rather than ask for volunteers. Come to think of it, paying local people who had lost jobs might have been part of the program. It’s one thing to ask volunteers to come in for a weekend to lick stamps or man the soup line. But where do you find people who can afford to put in long hours for weeks or months without getting paid?
Put another way, what planet do these people live on?
But WaPo‘s article is not the only one in the papers today about gawd-awful wastes of U.S. taxpayer dollars. James Glanz of the New York Times describes similar wastes on the other side of the world, in Iraq.
In a troubling sign for the American-financed rebuilding program in Iraq, inspectors for a federal oversight agency have found that in a sampling of eight projects that the United States had declared successes, seven were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting and expensive equipment that lay idle.
The United States has previously admitted, sometimes under pressure from federal inspectors, that some of its reconstruction projects have been abandoned, delayed or poorly constructed. But this is the first time inspectors have found that projects officially declared a success — in some cases, as little as six months before the latest inspections — were no longer working properly.
The article goes on to describe airports, hospitals, water refineries, and other vital facilities newly built by our tax dollars that are already falling into ruin. And note that this group only inspected facilities in the relatively safe areas. In several cases expensive equipment and facilities were never used by the Iraqis, apparently because the equipment and facilities were not what they wanted. Often the equipment and facilities were considerably different from what the Iraqis had before, and they were turned over to Iraqis without instruction or funds for maintenance.
“What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities,” Mr. Barton said. “If you don’t have those elements it’s an extension of colonialism and generally it’s resented.”
Mr. Barton, who has closely monitored reconstruction efforts in Iraq and other countries, said the American rebuilding program had too often created that resentment by imposing projects on Iraqis or relying solely on the advice of a local tribal chief or some “self-appointed representative” of local Iraqis.
In one example, a hospital was built with a sophisticated system for delivering oxygen. But the Iraqi medical staff didn’t trust the system and continued to use oxygen tanks, as they had before.
In other words, the plans for this hospital were drawn up by American companies (the article doesn’t name the contractors, but we know who they are, don’t we?), approved in Washington, and no one thought to sit down with the Iraqi doctors and hospital administrators to find out what they wanted.
There’s incompetence, of course. But there’s also arrogance. The way Bushies deal with Iraq and New Orleans reminds me of those 19th-century white missionaries who traveled far to bring the blessings of civilizations and Christianity to simple brown natives everywhere, and in doing so opened the way to wholesale plundering of whatever the simple brown natives had that white people wanted. Colonialism, paternalism, racism — it’s all there.
Expecting months of work to be done by volunteers is a case in point. Think about it; the faith-based charities who got $66 million paid money to consultants but not to workers. Their notion was that there would be lots of well-to-do people who don’t need jobs and wages who would volunteer to take care of people who do need jobs and wages — they’d probably prefer jobs and wages to handouts, I bet — after which the well-to-do could retire to their country clubs and complain that those people are too lazy to help themselves. Except this time there weren’t enough wealthy altruists to go around. Meanwhile, millions of tax dollars are quietly pocketed by contractors and consultants who deliver remarkably little in value for what they are paid.
Why did it not even occur to anyone in the Bush Administration or the faith-based charities to set up WPA-style programs and pay the jobless and dislocated people of New Orleans to do the relief and reconstruction work that needed doing? And why did it not even occur to the Bushies and their contractors to talk to Iraqi doctors what they wanted in their hospitals before they started building?
I’m sure a big part of the answer is that the Bushies see “projects” like Iraq and the Gulf Coast primarily as opportunities for rewarding corporate donors. What people actually need is way down the priority list.
I could go on, but I think I will flop about and sputter helplessly for a while.