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Before Tropical Storm Rita became a threat to the coast and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called for another evacuation, he squabbled with the Feds over the reopening of certain parts of his city. The Washington Post reported that Coast Guard Chief of Staff and Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen, appointed by Bush as leader of the federal response, argued it was “dangerous to invite tens of thousands of people into a city with little clean water, a severely compromised sewer system, a manual 911 emergency call system and few hospitals or traffic lights.”
47 Mexican military vehicles — mostly heavy trucks and 18-wheelers modified for rough terrain — rolled into KellyUSA. Because both of Mexico’s long coastlines are more hurricane-prone than our own, it has developed valuable expertise in dealing with the consequences of hurricanes. And since Mexico doesn’t invade other countries, its military focuses a lot of energy on serving its populace — and its neighbors — after disastrous calamities.
Among the 195 men and women who came are teams specialized in disaster medicine. But the Mexicans also brought the capacity to provide two basic necessities that often vanish after disasters: hot food and drinking water.
They brought two huge field kitchens, three mess tents (with tables and chairs), water treatment plants and ingredients for serving three hot meals to 7,000 people daily for 20 days. And if more is needed, Brig. Gen. Francisco Ortiz Valadez said, he will send for it.
Guerra’s column states that the general escorting the Mexican convoy explained they are under FEMA’s control and not the U.S. military and would be stationed in San Antonio. When Guerra asked FEMA’s press secretary, Christopher White, “Why wasn’t Mexico’s specialized help sent to the hurricane-battered area, where entire towns have been flattened and where 73 drinking water systems in Alabama, 555 in Mississippi and 469 in Louisiana are compromised or nonfunctional?” He promised to call back.
From Guerra’s column:
He called back to say that the State Department is handling all foreign relief help.
State Department press officer Jeanne Moore, however, hadn’t heard of the Mexican convoy, and after checking into it, called back.
But she could only refer me to a press briefing by State Department spokesman Shawn McCormack.
Asked by a reporter Thursday what help the Mexican convoy would provide, McCormack replied: “As far as I know, they’re part of a transportation convoy. As for how the aid gets distributed on the ground, I think the folks at (Department of Human Services) and FEMA or (Department of Defense) would be in a better position to answer that.”
Left Hand, let me introduce you to Right Hand. You should talk before you embarrass us even more.
But wait; couple this ineptitude with another decision to snub the Mexican aid. Guerra details in his second column in the series:
[The Mexican convoy] also expected that the Papaloapan, a 440-foot troop-landing ship whose disaster-medicine specialists come with a mobile hospital, ambulances and evacuation helicopters, would really help in New Orleans, since its marines are seasoned search-and-rescue workers, as they proved in Southeast Asia after the tsunami.
The convoy, however, was first ordered to Dallas and then to Houston before it was parked in San Antonio, while the Papaloapan was diverted to Biloxi, Miss., whose needs were more pressing than San Antonio’s, but certainly weren’t as urgent as New Orleans’.
Once it was in San Antonio, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forbade the Mexicans’ kitchen from serving beef, fearing mad-cow disease — which Mexico has never had — and the doctors were banned from treating patients because of licensing issues.
In Biloxi, federal officials also prohibited the doctors from practicing and let fewer than half the disaster workers land. Those who did ended up doing little more than handing out bottled water, clearing debris and posing with President Bush before their ship returned to Mexico on Wednesday.
Given the resources marginalized by such decisions, one has to wonder how many bad choices cost lives in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and just how many will hinder the rebuilding process. While the most technologically advanced mechanisisms are available for life-rescuing work, we lack the ability and the leadership to execute them at their fullest potential.
Guerra closes with this:
When President Fox asked Defense Secretary Ricardo Clemente Vega García how long it would take to send the convoy and ship, his response was: ” En solo unas horas (within hours).” And half a day later, they were on their way.
That is a lesson Washington must learn.