Disaster 101 Why Europe Hasn't Jumped to Help Katrina's Victims

When a tsunami hit South Asia in December, the world mobilized to help and aid poured in. Now that parts of America are underwater, the US is handling the relief work virtually alone. What is going on?

By Jody K. Biehl in Berlin

New Orleans is littered with devastation. Here, a floating casino lists dangerously.

New Orleans is littered with devastation. Here, a floating casino lists dangerously.

Virtually overnight, fun-loving New Orleans transformed from America's playground into a waterlogged wasteland. Photos of houses and highways underwater and reports of dead bodies floating in swampy debris and frightened refugees huddling for cover have left us mute. Hurricane Katrina turned out to be at least as violent as expected and will likely turn out to be among the biggest hurricanes of all time.

Yet, in Europe, the Web sites of major aid organizations -- including international branches of the Red Cross in Germany, France, England etc. -- don't even mention its existence. Instead, they continue to highlight such worthy causes as hunger in Niger, ongoing aid for victims of December's South Asian tsunami and, in the French case, an airline crash in Venezuela. But the US Gulf Coast is nowhere to be found. It begs the question: Don't the desperate people of Lousiana and Mississippi need the world's help and attention?

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Katrina's Aftermath: Flood chaos in the southern United States

Not necessarily, as it turns out. Unlike underdeveloped Third World nations, America has a well-honed and highly organized system of emergency aid distribution. So, when disaster hits, the nation -- and even individual states -- can readily help themselves. "If the American Red Cross asks us for help, we will be there directly," said Margitta Zimmermann, German Red Cross spokesperson. "But so far, there haven't been any calls for our services." And unless the German branch is directly involved in a rescue mission, they don't include disasters on their Web site, she said.

Kristina Decker, from Germany's Christian aid group Caritas, concurred, saying help from Germany might even cause more harm than good. "America has a strong army and are well equipped for disaster relief," she said. "It makes no sense for us to go in and try to help. What really would we do? They have enough personnel to handle the crisis alone. Our workers might just be in the way. Of course, if they asked us to come in, we would. But that is not the case so far."

A National Guardsman helps evacuate a five-month-old girl after her family's New Orleans home was flooded.

A National Guardsman helps evacuate a five-month-old girl after her family's New Orleans home was flooded.

When hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters hit developing nations, residents in remote regions are often taken unawares, as was the case of the December tsunami. By contrast, meteorologists warned Gulf Coast states well in advance of Katrina's approach and by the time she hit on Monday, 80 percent of New Orleans' approximately 480,000 residents had heeded their mayor's call to evacuate the city. Plus, emergency facilities were already in place and workers ready to assist. US President George Bush broke off his month-long vacation two days early because of Katrina and declared a state of emergency on the Gulf Coast even before the storm hit, thus clearing the way for immediate federal aid. "When a catastrophe occurs in a Third World country, the dimension is totally different," Decker said. "That sort of immediate help is just not spontaneously there."

Although European agencies won't be sending relief workers, they will accept donations and pass them on to American aid groups. But for the moment, none are planning a large fundraising drive to help American victims. But, then again, they never do. The only exception came with Sept. 11, when both the German Red Cross and Caritas were swamped with calls from Germans wanting to donate. "We had so many people calling and asking to donate that we couldn't do anything but open up a bank account," Zimmermann said. "But that was a real exception." At Caritas, Decker said the the phones rang non-stop after the World Trade Center attacks and the group passed on over €100,000 to the American aid group Catholic Charities. "Some of that money ended up sitting in a bank because the need for it was not immediately there," she said. "But certainly there was the desire to give."

In the wake of Katrina, at least so far, she said, the phone lines have been relatively quiet. By 11 a.m. Tuesday, for instance, Caritas had only received one donation. That may change, however. "The first impressions were that the damage was under control," Decker said. "But if the media reports continue in the way they did yesterday (Monday), then I think the response will be much greater."

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