Hurricane aid pours in

From Sri Lanka to France, emergency relief is sent, but tinged with criticism of US handling of the disaster.

Governments around the world rushed aid and relief teams to America's stricken southern states on Monday - some repaying past favors the United States has offered them to recover from natural disasters - while their citizens continued to express amazement and dismay at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In a dramatic reversal of usual roles, small nations such as Sri Lanka - badly hit by last December's tsunami - have extended their hands to the most powerful country on earth. And after initial ambivalence, American officials were accepting offers of help from over 50 countries with thanks.

"My country needs a lot of help because it has suffered a catastrophe that has no historical parallel," US ambassador to Spain, Eduardo Aguirre, said in Madrid on Monday, after asking the Spanish government for generators, medical equipment, pumps, and oil. "The most important thing right now is to know that we have friends."

Even America's foreign friends, however, have been free with their criticism of the way the US authorities handled rescue and relief operations in New Orleans last week. Repeated TV images of bodies floating in the floodwaters, crowds of homeless people abandoned to their fate for days, and looters emptying shops have raised harsh questions in Europe about the nature of American society.

"America's dark underbelly has been laid bare," charged London's Daily Mail in a headline Saturday, above a commentary drawing attention to the way in which the large majority of flood victims are poor and black.

As the scale of the disaster that hit Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi became clear, and Washington reversed its earlier decision that it did not need foreign aid, its allies readied thousands of tons of emergency supplies and hundreds of millions of dollars to feed, shelter, and care for displaced Americans forced from their homes.

As part of a NATO plan, the British government has flown 500,000 military ration packs to the afflicted zone, while the German government has sent food and is readying a hospital ship in case it is needed.

The French Red Cross has dispatched 17 logistics experts, trained in food distribution, shelter management, and other emergency skills, along with thousands of "family kits" containing food, medical, and hygiene items that had been stocked in Guadeloupe, ready for a disaster in the Caribbean.

The French and Italian governments put their military transport planes to work Sunday, carrying blankets, cots, tents, and inflatable dinghies, but there were signs that the sudden flood of relief supplies was overwhelming US authorities.

The Swedish Rescue Services Agency said Sunday it had postponed sending two portable water purification stations to New Orleans until the authorities were able to install them at Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Asian countries were kicking in too, led by South Korea, which has pledged $30 million and 40 rescue workers. A fleet of Singaporean Chinook helicopters is already lifting survivors from roofs in New Orleans, and the Thai prime minister said Monday that his offer of 100 doctors and nurses had been accepted.

Even tiny Sri Lanka, which is still struggling to rebuild after last December's tsunami, has promised $25,000 to the American Red Cross.

In the Middle East, wealthy Gulf countries have promised funds to pay for the posthurricane clean-up: Kuwait - freed from Iraqi occupation 14 years ago by US-led troops - has pledged $500 million, the largest single donation so far. Even countries unfriendly to the US, such as Iran and Syria, have offered help. Cuba, too, has offered to send 1,100 doctors to Houston, if Washington wants them.

From Iraq, however, came a jarring note: Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued a statement on the Internet calling Katrina divine retribution. "God's great wrath has hit the head of the oppressors," the statement read.

Less vicious criticism of the US has been widely voiced in Europe and elsewhere, however, as foreigners expressed their bewilderment at the apparent inability of the government to care for its most desperate citizens in a crisis.

Commentators have returned time and again to the fact that the vast majority of flood victims, left to fend for themselves, are poor African-Americans. "America has been forced to wake up to the racial injustice that has been its historic curse," Jonathan Freedland wrote in Monday's edition of the left-leaning London daily The Guardian.

Others, including a BBC reporter in New Orleans, have been dismayed by the speed at which social ties broke down under pressure: There were no reports of tourists in Sri Lanka or Thailand being mugged after the tsunami, they point out, nor of looters shooting at policemen.

That might, perhaps, help explain one striking aspect of the international reaction to the tragedy in New Orleans and surrounding areas: It does not appear to have sparked the spontaneous outpouring of charitable solidarity in Europe or elsewhere that last December's tidal wave provoked in millions of people worldwide who sent donations.

As fleets of transport aircraft ferried emergency aid to America from around the world, pointed out Andre Kaspi, a history professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, "this is intergovernmental solidarity. It is not the popular solidarity that was shown after the tsunami," he told French radio.

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