NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – In 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the rest of the Gulf of Mexico causing upwards of $150 billion in damages and displacing over 800,000 people.
As the consequences piled up, it became clear that the U.S. was inexperienced in the matters of domestic natural disasters. Issues in infrastructure and bureaucracy became evident quickly. Years passed and limited progress was made. Over eight years later, entire sections of New Orleans remain in ruins and thousands still live in “temporary” housing, if not outright poverty. In the meantime, hundreds of millions of dollars and services in international aid have been declined, gone unused, or ignored.
Soon after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina was made clear, countries from around the world gave a staggering amount of foreign aid to the U.S. In total, over 90 countries offered the U.S. $854 million in cash and oil (to be sold for cash). Besides big spenders like the United Arab Emirates, who pledged $100 million in cash and $400 million in oil, frequent recipients of U.S. aid added their offers to the table. Bangladesh pledged $1 million along with rescue workers. Thailand, having only one year earlier suffered through the massive tsunami, offered 60 doctors and nurses, and rice as a “gesture from the heart.” Donors were not limited to friends, either. Cuba, a country that has repeatedly rejected U.S. humanitarian aid in the past, offered the services of 1,100 doctors.
While some donations were heartily accepted, like Germany’s high-speed pumps to lower the flood waters or the Dutch levee reconstruction experts, most were either declined or simply unclaimed. Allies offering troops and search-and-rescue teams were denied. A Swedish plane of aid was not given clearance to land. Italy’s shipments of medical supplies were left to spoil in the elements for weeks until they were destroyed without ever being utilized. Greece’s donation of two cruise ships to be used for free hotels or hospitals was rejected, because they would not arrive for a month. Instead, the U.S. spent $249 million using Carnival Cruise ships.
All in all, of the $854 million pledged, only $40 million had been used by April 2007. Of the 77 offers made by the end of 2006 from the U.S.’s closest allies, Britain, Israel, and Canada, 54 were outright rejected. The government’s red tape and bureaucracy were not the only obstacles. Organizations’ granted funds to assist displaced families or reconstruct institutions were similarly ineffective. In March of 2006 $60 million was set aside for schools, colleges, and universities to help cover damage costs. However, by April 2007 only $10.4 million had been claimed. One of the major nonprofit collaborations to provide social services to displaced families was given $66 million but ended up assisting less than half of their 100,000 family target.
How far might the unclaimed aid have gone?
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina the U.S. Department of Education gave $7 million to the coastal states for mental health assessments and emergency transportation. The longer costs to patch the education infrastructure topped $2 billion. Yet, rebuilding efforts festered until 2010 when the government pledged $1.8 billion to rebuild schools in New Orleans.
Since there was extensive coverage of the devastating conditions of the Superdome, many people were aware of the need for housing. Roughly 600,000 families were in need of housing, and Habitat for Humanity quoted individual house costs at $85,000. The unclaimed foreign assistance would pay for over 8.5 thousand homes.
The transportation infrastructure damage done by Hurricane Katrina was estimated at over $1 billion. Part of the damaged transport system included 44 bridges. With the extra aid, each bridge could have received $16 million towards repairs.
The most noteworthy aspect of this lost opportunity is the immense sacrifices on the parts of many of the donor countries. Less than one year earlier, Thailand had lost over 5,000 people to the tsunami, and was facing $353.4 million in damages. Our inability to be on the other end of the exchange of aid had expensive consequences for the U.S.
– Katey Baker-Smith