Greg Gottlieb: One way the US disaster response has improved – not accepting foreign aid

Greg Gottlieb reflects on one key lesson the US has learned in regard to disaster response:

As the rain continues to fall in Texas from the seemingly interminable Tropical Storm Harvey, comparisons are being made to the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina. Fair enough.  Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans’ Ninth Ward with a huge storm surge that topped and eventually broke levees.  Nearly two thousand people died.  There was chaos and violence in the Superdome.  The population in New Orleans declined sharply and has not returned to pre-Katrina numbers.  The overall relief response was tumultuous and ineffective for much of the first week.  Are relief efforts are better this time around?

In at least one aspect of the response, we are doing much better: dealing with relief offers from other countries. We are not taking them.  This might sound ungrateful or foolish. However, the response to Katrina, was the first time we have ever accepted foreign assistance and this only complicated an already very complicated situation.

Many countries offered assistance within the first few days of the Katrina disaster.  The Bush Administration, felt the pressure of these requests because of the criticism received for denying assistance offers during 9/11.  Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice announced that the U.S. would accept “in principle” all offers of assistance. This opened the floodgates (excuse the pun) to a variety of products from around the world, some valuable, some unusable, most unnecessary.  The political pressure to accept contributions undermined the best advice of relief officials. Although FEMA had a system to distribute relief assistance from domestic sources, (which didn’t work very well for a variety of reasons for the first week or so of the disaster) it did not have a system to deal with foreign contributions.

When Katrina struck, I was the deputy director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) within the U.S. Agency for International Development. Our mandate was to deal with disasters taking place in foreign countries, not those occurring in the U.S.  Nevertheless, we were asked to provide assistance with the foreign donations.  With the help of the Pentagon, we arranged for all contributions to come into Little Rock Air Base, and then moved those contributions to areas of need.  I wish I could say that this system-on-the-fly worked without a hitch, but that was not the case.

FEMA pushed to decline all of the donations, which was not an option given Secretary Rice’s declaration of acceptance. Since we had to accept the donations, FEMA wanted OFDA to do the distributions, which we were unable to do since we had no domestic distribution systems.  Finally, what foreign countries donated was an issue.  The Netherlands and Germany helped with pumping out water from New Orleans, which worked well. But the small generators that came from China, powered by 220 volts, were incompatible with our 120 volts system, so of no use. And there were foodstuffs of every sort imaginable. Horse-flavored baby food sent the Food and Drug Administration into a fit.  Not only could we not let this product out of the air base, we had to send it out of the country.  Talk about a diplomatic nightmare—explain that to a close ally which feels it is helping.  It took a couple of months to sort out this contribution.

In many years of working overseas in disaster response, I have seen countries grapple with the same problem— contributions from well-meaning countries that wanted to help.  Of what value are winter coats in tropical Sri Lanka, or short dresses in conservative and cold northern Pakistan? The lesson is that effective relief means the right products at the right time in the right place.  We might have ostensibly made the right diplomatic decision during Katrina, but we did not make the right decision for those affected by the storm. Instead, we clogged up our relief system.

Following Katrina, a number of federal agencies came together and hammered out the International Assistance System, which is designed to deal with foreign contributions.  The IAS gives FEMA a stronger say in what assistance can be accepted, helping diminish chances that unwanted items do not clog up the delivery system.  Should there be requests to provide assistance, we are now able to better determine what should  and should not be accepted.

Since Harvey struck, other nations have not been clamoring to provide assistance. This might be in part because of a message sent from the State Department to our embassies overseas to advise countries wanting to contribute to give cash rather than goods. (That is also what OFDA and FEMA tell well-meaning contributors who want to respond to disasters.)  Hopefully those messages, combined with the IAS, will result in a much better response to Harvey than to Katrina.

Harvey may indeed end up being far worse than Katrina in terms of displacement, costs to business, and damage to infrastructure.  But at least in one regard, our response is system is improved.

And if you are thinking of helping: send cash.