Katrina Elicits Sympathy, Jeers Worldwide

Even as they pledge aid, nations express surprise at the ineffective U.S. response to the crisis.

By Héctor Tobar

Los Angeles Times

September 4, 2005

MEXICO CITY — Around the world, the irony was too deep to ignore.

In teeming Mexico City, the newspaper Ovaciones took a break from its daily diet of kidnappings and gore to splash across its front page images of an American city reduced to "starvation, refugees … and helicopters under fire."

"Just Like Haiti!" the banner headline screamed.

From Beijing and Havana, as well as Paris and Berlin, there were offers of assistance to the most powerful nation on Earth as it struggled to cope in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Pledges of help came from more than 50 countries, including oil from Venezuela, generators from Japan and cash from Australia. Others offered boats, aircraft, medical supplies and blankets.

Even impoverished Sri Lanka made a $25,000 donation, a gesture in recognition of Americans' response to last year's tsunami.

But the expressions of sympathy were mixed with a worldwide sense of amazement and disgust at the failure of American authorities to effectively deal with the crisis.

After describing the plight of two Brazilians caught up in the fetid drama at the Louisiana Superdome in an editorial titled "Collapse," the Jornal do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro said New Orleans had been reduced to a "tribal area."

"To see homeless dying of thirst and lack of medical care in the middle of the street escapes comprehension," the paper said. "The world asks how [the Americans] were able to take food and water so quickly to remote Indonesia and cannot save New Orleans."

In Europe, some commentators saw links between the disaster and unpopular U.S. policies in Iraq. Germany's environment minister associated the catastrophe with the Bush administration's position on global warming. Others saw a racial dimension to the tragedy.

"The fast and secure evacuation has been of white people," said the German leftist daily Die Tageszeitung. "Poor and black people stayed behind. It is as if time had stopped between the racial unrest of the '60s and today."

Some of the most heartfelt expressions of sympathy were from Southeast Asia, where memories of the tsunami — another surge of angry waters that took tens of thousands of lives — are still fresh.

"The people of Aceh and Nias learned from the tsunami last year, and we are also grateful for the American people's generosity to help us here," said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, Indonesia's director of tsunami reconstruction. "Perhaps we can find some lesson learned that we can share with the people of America."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said his government was dispatching 20 disaster experts to the region and contributing $7.5 million to the Red Cross.

"There should not be an assumption that because America is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, this isn't a major challenge and a major crisis," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Other nations have offered help during previous U.S. emergencies, such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But never in recent history has there been such an outpouring, said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The Bush administration has offered mixed signals on whether it would accept such aid. In an interview with ABC on Thursday, President Bush said the U.S. was not seeking foreign assistance. "This country is going to rise up and take care of it," he said.

That statement prompted an angry editorial Friday from the Jamaican newspaper the Gleaner: "Sometimes even the high and mighty need to realize that we all need each other and that they would not lose face were they to accept some tangible help from others who have been the beneficiaries of their generosity in the past."

But on Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed "the heartfelt thanks of the president, the United States government and all Americans" to those who had offered support. She said she was "deeply touched" by Sri Lanka's gesture.

"We've turned down no offers," she said.

A few offers of aid were not likely to be accepted.

In a nationally televised speech in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez said he was prepared to send 2,000 troops to New Orleans to help quell looting. Chavez is an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and the Bush administration has accused the Venezuelan president of destabilizing the region.

Chavez also proffered $1 million in fuel aid and criticized the American relief effort. "As more information comes out now, a terrible truth is becoming evident: That government doesn't have evacuation plans," he said.

Castro offered to send 1,100 doctors from Cuba.

Around the world, people heard that unlucky compatriots had been trapped in the disaster zone.

Student Darya Grigorenko, speaking by telephone Wednesday with a Moscow television station, told of being stuck on the upper floors of a New Orleans hotel with about 30 other Russians. "A National Guard helicopter is flying over the city, but they can't help us," she said.

The Mexican TV network Televisa interviewed a Mexican doctor marooned amid scenes of horror in a New Orleans hospital.

"We've seen people dying, women kidnapped," Rafael Rojas said, his voice quavering. "But the truth is, we're better off than most people…. We drank some vegetable juice yesterday."

Suddenly he began to weep. "Ayúdenos, por favor!" he cried out — "Help us, please!"

Afterward, Televisa anchor Joaquin Lopez Doriga opined: "The government of the United States is bankrupt…. It can't deal with the disaster."

Some critics of American foreign policy saw the anarchy in New Orleans as a kind of karmic retribution for the perceived sins of the Bush presidency.

"A modern metropolis which collapses under water and in chaos is a cruel show for a champion of security like Bush," Gerard Dupuy wrote in the Paris daily Liberation.

In China, some questioned why any nation would feel the need to provide disaster relief to the United States.

"Why should we donate money to the Americans?" asked an anonymous poster in an Internet chat room. "We have so many farmers who don't have enough to eat…. We should solve our own problems first."

In Baghdad, Hakim Khafaji, an unemployed former soldier, said he felt sympathy for the U.S. victims despite his anger about the U.S. troop presence.

"Our dispute is with the U.S. government, which has treated us like second-class humans," he said. "But we are friends with the people of all nations. We don't like to see a nation or people subjected to a natural disaster, especially of this magnitude."

Everyday life in Baghdad, other Iraqis noted, bears some resemblance to the horrors of flooded New Orleans.

"In America, their whole life depends on electricity, for elevators, for doors, for factories," said Maan Dohi, a Baghdad policeman. "On the other hand, Iraqis are used to having the power cut off and living a hard life."


Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Henry Chu in Rio de Janeiro; John Daniszewski in London; Petra Falkenberg in Berlin; David Holley in Moscow; Mark Magnier in Beijing; Richard C. Paddock in Singapore; Sebastian Rotella in Paris; Edmund Sanders in Baghdad; Carol J. Williams in Kingston, Jamaica; and Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondents Dinda Jouhana in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Claire Rocher in Paris.