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Israeli Offer of Expert Assistance Turned Away in Days After Katrina

The United States turned down offers of expert assistance from Israel and other nations in the crucial first days after Hurricane Katrina took its toll on New Orleans, JTA has learned. Instead, the United States solicited material assistance that was probably superfluous by the time Israel’s shipment arrived Thursday evening.

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 crisis; and the potential political fallout from asking foreigners 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 non-governmental organization involved in current rescue efforts, who asked not to be identified because of a relationship with U.S. government officials.

The death toll from the storm and subsequent flooding could run anywhere from hundreds of people to tens of thousands. In addition, hundreds of thousands have been rendered homeless.

Critics have excoriated federal, state and local officials for their alleged failure to attend quickly to a disaster that left tens of thousands of people stranded and exposed to disease and drowning for days. Democrats and some Republicans, as well as a welter of newspaper editorial pages, 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 placed to help, since a cadre of medical experts originally trained to attend 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-Qaida 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, JTA has learned.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department did not return JTA 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 Friday morning; authorities did not start evacuating the New Orleans Superdome, where most refugees from the hurricane had gathered, until Saturday.

Officials involved in delivering 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, as opposed 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 after Katrina, said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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

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

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

“We have 150 first responders arriving every day in Baton Rouge,” he said.

In the end, the United States asked Israel and other countries to deliver equipment and material. Israel came through Thursday 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.

Speaking to reporters in New York on Friday, Sela left open the possibility that the United States would ask Israel for expert assistance as well. A team of police forensic experts can be dispatched on 36-hour notice, he said, in addition to experts that have aided in other large-scale catastrophes such as the tsunami.

“Until now the request was ‘send us items,’ and we sent it,” he said.

President Bush cited Israel’s assistance in a speech Friday thanking countries for their offers of help.

“Israel sent tents and mineral water and medical supplies,” Bush said.

But while such assistance is welcome for its symbolic value, it’s probably superfluous by now, experts said.

“We’re entering a phase where most people have basic access to commodities,” said Dean Agee, a vice president of International Aid, a relief group known for its work in the tsunami zone. “But there is a very large psychological boost to see these countries offering help; usually it’s the United States offering help.”

Briese agreed.

“It’s more of a good symbol,” he said.

Agee foresaw 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 now. In terms of damage, you can’t tell the difference.”

JTA Staff Writer Chanan Tigay in New York contributed to this story.

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