U.S. Rejects Israel’s Offer of Aid Workers

The United States turned down offers of expert assistance from Israel and other nations in the crucial first days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Instead, the United States solicited material assistance from Israel that was probably superfluous by the time the shipment arrived on the evening of Sept. 8.

The reasons behind the decisions are unclear. Experts have offered a number of explanations, including the bureaucratic difficulties involved in absorbing thousands of foreign first-responder personnel, the belief that the existing first-responder infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi was well equipped to handle the crisis and the potential political fallout from asking foreign nations to help the world’s greatest power save lives on its own turf.

Such a request would have been “a tremendous admission of failure,” said one official of a nongovernmental organization involved in current rescue efforts, who asked not to be identified because of his relationship with U.S. government officials.

Critics have excoriated federal, state and local officials for their alleged failure to attend quickly to a disaster that for days left tens of thousands of people stranded, exposed to disease and at risk of drowning. Democrats and some Republicans, as well as a welter of newspaper editorials, have especially targeted President Bush and his administration for what Democrats contend was a slow and at times remote response to the crisis.

Israel would have been uniquely qualified to help, because a cadre of medical experts originally trained to respond to terrorist attacks has honed its expertise at earthquake and hurricane zones across the world. Most recently, Israel rushed medical personnel to Sri Lanka within hours of the tsunami in late December. In 1998, Israel’s lightning response to Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in east Africa — hours ahead of the arrival of U.S. rescuers — was credited with saving dozens of lives.

The original Israeli offer after Hurricane Katrina was for “the dispatch of medical teams numbering hundreds of people, considerable medical equipment, medicines and additional necessary equipment,” according to a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. But the Bush administration turned down that and other offers of first-responder and medical-professional help from abroad, although Bush did cite Israel’s assistance in a speech last Friday, thanking countries for their offers of help.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Israel’s offer on Sept. 1, a day after the Bush administration declared Katrina’s aftermath a public health emergency, came within the four-day window when such assistance is crucial. Israel might have had personnel on the ground by Sept. 2. Authorities did not start evacuating the New Orleans Superdome, where most refugees from the hurricane had gathered, until Sept. 3.

Officials involved in coordinating assistance did not want to comment on the record, but they said complex U.S. regulations regarding accreditation of doctors and other personnel might have been a factor, in contrast to Israel’s experience in developing nations, where such rules are more flexible. Additionally, no one anticipated that the most advanced medical system in the world would be so easily overwhelmed, experts said.

First-responder assistance from outside the region would have been crucial in the first days, said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

“These communities lost their firefighters,” he said. “Buildings don’t exist, homes don’t exist, equipment doesn’t exist.”

Briese, who has a relationship with Magen David Adom (MDA), the Israeli relief agency, dating back to the 1970s when he helped train MDA medics, said Israel would have been uniquely able to assist. But he wondered if the Israeli experts could have arrived in time, given the travel distance.

There no longer is a need for first-responder assistance, and his organization has called on its members to stop going to the region, Briese said.

In the end, the United States asked Israel and other countries to deliver equipment and material. Israel came through on Sept. 8 with 80 tons of food packages, diapers, beds, blankets, generators and other essentials on an El Al flight, partially funded by the Jewish National Fund, that landed in Little Rock, Ark.

“Jewish tradition says, ‘To save a life is to save the entire world,’ and this comes from the hearts of the Israeli people,” said Eyal Sela, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official who accompanied the material.

Dean Agee, a vice president of International Aid, a relief group known for its work in the tsunami zone. foresees the need for more long-term assistance from Israel and other nations in rebuilding the region.

“In Mississippi alone there are 200,000 roofs needing to be repaired,” he said. “I have two photographs in front of me of Sri Lanka in March and of Gulfport [Miss.] now. In terms of damage, you can’t tell the difference.”

Chanan Tigay contributed to this story.