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Saturday, September 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. response to disaster amazes, disgusts world

Los Angeles Times

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

In teeming Mexico City, the newspaper Ovaciones splashed 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 from Paris and Berlin, there were offers of assistance to the most powerful nation on Earth as it struggled to cope with 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 small gesture to recognize Americans' response to last year's tsunami.

But the expressions of sympathy were mixed with worldwide amazement and disgust at the failure of U.S. authorities to cope with the crisis.

After describing the plight of two Brazilians caught up in the fetid human drama at the Superdome in an editorial titled "Collapse," the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Jornal do Brasil 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 wrote. "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. The German government minister for the environment linked the disaster to 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 sixties and today."

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

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.

Never in recent history has there been such an outpouring of aid to the U.S. as this week, said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The administration has offered mixed signals on whether it would accept such aid. President Bush told ABC on Thursday that the United States 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 yesterday 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 yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed "the heartfelt thanks of the president, the United States government and all Americans." She said she was "deeply touched" by Sri Lanka's offer of help.

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

At least one offer of aid was not likely to be accepted.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said he was prepared to send 2,000 troops to New Orleans to help quell looting. Chávez is an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Bush administration has accused him of destabilizing the region.

Chávez also offered $1 million in fuel aid and sharply criticized the U.S. relief effort. "Around the world, people heard how unlucky compatriots had become trapped in the disaster zone."

In Britain, a headline in the Evening Standard declared: "'Get Us Out: We fear we're going to die,' says hurricane Briton trapped with fiancée."

The Mexican television network Televisa interviewed a Mexican doctor marooned 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. "Ayudenos, por favor!" he cried out. Help us, please.

Some critics of U.S. 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 Parisian daily Liberation. "Safe and dry in his mountain lair, bin Laden must be laughing madly: Civil defense helicopters are being shot at from the banks of the Mississippi!"

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 one 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, Iraq, Hakim Khafaji, 44, an unemployed former soldier, said he felt sympathy for the victims despite his anger over U.S. occupation.

"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, 31, a Baghdad policeman. "On the other hand, Iraqis are used to having the power cut off and living a hard life."

Los Angeles Times reporters Henry Chu, John Daniszewski, Petra Falkenberg, David Holley, Mark Magnier, Richard C. Paddock, Sebastian Rotella, Edmund Sanders, Carol J. Williams, Paul Richter, Dinda Jouhana, and Claire Rocher contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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