Remember those estimates that it would take three to six months to pump the water out of New Orleans? Just ten days after those estimates were made, the city is more or less dry. There is a story behind this news. It has to do with a large contingent of German volunteers who came to play a major role in the rescue of New Orleans. It's time someone told their story.
As news of the horrific destruction from Katrina slowly trickled out of Louisiana and Mississippi, nations all over the world asked how they could help. German Chancellor Schroeder didn't merely ask, he made a concrete offer: Germany could immediately send a disaster team with high-performance German pumps, to help remove the "toxic soup" from the soup-bowl that New Orleans had become.
Tested and proven in the Asian Tsunami disaster earlier this year, and in the floods of 2003 in France, the German pumping team could provide what no other country had available: fast, experienced help with some of the best mobile pumping equipment available anywhere.
By Sunday, September 4, the offer had been accepted by US Ambassador William Timken on behalf of the United States at a time when most other nations were still asking how they could help. THW, the German technical relief agency, asked for volunteers. By departure date the German team had grown to 89 volunteers, with five paid support personnel. They were joined by a five-person team from Luxembourg. All expenses were covered by the Federal Republic of Germany.
Their arrival in New Orleans five days later was timed to coincide with repairs to the levees. The German team was joined by similar emergency pumping teams from The Netherlands and Arkansas, all working under the coordination of Col. Duane Gapinski of the US Army Corps of Engineers. A total of 50 high-performance mobile pumps were deployed, of which the Germans contributed 20.
The scale of the German pumping operation was vast. The equipment alone filled seven military cargo planes: four C-17 Globemasters and three C-5 Galaxies, fully loaded with mobile pumping gear and trucks at Ramstein Air Base.
Florian Weber, a German volunteer interviewed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine, said that he was in no way prepared for the extent of the disaster when he arrived. For him, the worst aspect of the operation was the water itself, harboring hidden bacteria and toxic chemicals.
As for me, observing these disaster relief efforts from the comfort and safety of the high Rocky Mountains of Colorado, it is not the size of the German effort that surprises, nor their exceptional experience and training, nor even the remarkable speed of their deployment. I am truly surprised by the silence with which this help has been greeted in the American media.
President Bush and Ambassador Timken have officially thanked the German government for this timely and effective assistance. But has any trace of these official communications made it into print, or into our wall-to-wall television coverage? Not as far as I can tell, based on an exhaustive Google search. Nor has President Bush taken the time to inform Americans about the scale and types of assistance that we have been receiving from abroad.
The only significant mention of the German effort that I found anywhere in the US media was an eight-paragraph press release from US Northern Command. As far as I can tell, no actual news stories were written based on that press release.
In fact, I would not have known about the German pumping teams at all, had I not been working in the Dominican Republic last week. Having a spare hour in which to relax, I turned on the television in my hotel room and found a program on Katrina being aired by Deutsche Welle, the German international television channel.
Even so, even with traveling abroad and sampling the programming of Dominican cable television, I still might have missed the news from Germany. The final and crucial requirement, the one that ultimately allowed me to receive this information, was what might be called "openness." As I surfed through the television channels, I was open to hearing what Germany had to say. I stopped where others might have gone on because, in my long-ago youth, I had once been an exchange student in Düsseldorf, Germany.
It simply is not possible for me to overstate the power of the experience of being an exchange student: it helped to shape my outlook on other nations of the world, to feel at home in foreign climes, to accept as natural that others may have very different ways of looking at the world. I feel at home with all things German, and for this I owe a debt to the Quaker student exchange service that made it possible.
Surely it is time that someone in the American media deliver a heartfelt "Thank You" direct from the people of the United States to the volunteers of Germany, and indeed to the citizens of all nations who offered their help during this emergency. Lacking such a response, let me say it here:
And thank you one more time again, for welcoming a very young American way back in 1965, teaching him German, and showing him the wonders and beauties of Continental lifeways and thoughts.
Sincerely your friend,
Note: TQE readers are continuing to write in with further commentary on the subject of federal flood insurance. We have reserved space at the end of the Readers' Comments section for these letters. Click here to go directly to that area.
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This letter, like several others in the past several months, contains more news and less opinion than normal for The Quaker Economist. This did not happen by design, nor by editorial policy. Instead, it simply seemed appropriate given the rather unusual circumstances of late.
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Loren Cobb, Editor.
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I have followed the news coverage both on German and American sources, and I can confirm that I have not seen any words which say "Dankeschön, Deutschland!" for helping with the flood catastrophe in Louisiana and other southern states. I watched the German news, and was told that these German pumps were helpful with pumping up the water in New Orleans.
The lack of thankful words from America is not really an issue here these days. Germany is and was concerned about Hurricane Katrina, and we also follow the path of Hurricane Rita, but at this time nobody here in Germany is concerned or even mad that nobody said "Danke."
We are way too busy with our own worries, like finding alliances for a new government among all those possible varieties. But I really appreciated your letter and although I had nothing to do with sending out aides from the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW), I reply with a "Gern geschehen, America!" (You're welcome!)
From a reader in Germany.
Thank you, Germany, for sending a portable hospital to Mississippi, too. And shame on the US for turning back a German plane with emergency food supplies! [The links in this letter lead to stories in the New Orleans Times Picayune. ed.]
This is a great issue. I'm so glad you did the research, found the details and wrote the story. I have contacted a couple of television networks about making this a news story. I hope they follow up.
Thank you very much for your kind words about German assistance. Regarding the coverage in the US press: The Washington Times wrote about the THW relief efforts [summary: Atlantic Review]. I appreciate that The Quaker Economist is spreading the word about Germany's contributions. You are contributing to better transatlantic relations. Reuters wrote about a new solidarity in Germany with the United States after recent differences over Iraq [summary: Atlantic Review]. Cheers,
Jörg Wolf, The Atlanic Review, Berlin, Germany.
What an interesting letter, and what excellent sentiments you expressed. One of the most frightening aspects of what I see happening is the resurfacing of unthinking nationalism. Combined with the isolationist tendencies that are not too far below the surface, I am not surprised that the German assistance has been ignored.
From the distance and relative safety of Australia, I must say that I'm just so saddened to see how the United States is losing the moral leadership it once enjoyed to such a large extent. Yes, the Kyoto Treaty is probably flawed, but the image from America appears to be one of deliberate rejection, when I should have thought that exercising positive leadership in the realm of environmentalism would have helped both to maintain your capital of soft power, and to provide opportunities for American business. Yes, the United Nations is inefficient, over-bureaucratised, and pretty corrupt, but the seemingly persistent negativism emanating from Washington just seems to give assistance to the erosion of what is, after all, the only such institution we have, and one that was a child of the Western liberal imagination: but of course, that may be the problem.
I hate knocking America, because it has been a great friend to so many countries (though I have to say that the book "Blowback" gives one pause for thought!) not least to us down under. And my own country does some pretty daft things on occasion!
Mark Ebery, a friend from Australia.
A friend forwarded TQE #133 to me today and I was astonished that I had heard nothing about Germany's assistance in New Orleans. Our political partisanship has reached such a crescendo, particularly with regard to New Orleans, that I am tired of reading almost exclusively negative comments regarding the situation there. Our mass media is so focused on examining their belly buttons and making news, not reporting it, that with little exception I am doubtful of most of what I read and listen to from our media. I have visited Germany on a few occasions during my Air Force service (19531980) and was most impressed with the appearance of the country and the friendliness of the German people. My heartfelt thanks to you informing us and to the people of Germany for their unique assistance.
Col. James K. Rogers, USAF, Retired.
There is no question in my mind that the federal flood insurance program poses a moral hazard, in that it is underpriced for the risk assumed and thus encourages people to build in flood-prone areas that they might not build in if it were priced appropriately. But the government isn't able to price it appropriately, because political pressures cause it to be priced too cheaply. The only entities that I know of that are able to set a realistic price for such insurance are the private insurance companies. These entities are the experts on risk; their continued existence depends upon their pricing risk accurately. (If a company prices it too high, no one will buy and their competitors will prosper at their expense; but if they price it too low, a catastrophe will eventually wipe them out). There may well be areas that are so flood-prone that such insurance won't be affordable; but then few will be able to afford to buy or build in such areas, which is a market signal that the proper use of that area is something else (e.g., wetlands, agriculture, whatever). Over time, these areas will be abandoned to more appropriate uses.
So, if this analysis is correct, all lenders should demand that every policy covering a property on which they lend money include flood insurance, and simultaneously the government should get out of the flood insurance business, leaving it to private insurers to price the insurance area by area. The vast majority of areas would end up with only a slight increase in premium, since the insurance company will deem them at low risk for flooding. But areas at great risk will see significant premium increases. Such a policy would have enormous benefits, not the least to the environment, as areas that are inappropriate for human habitation are turned over for other uses. Also, since such a policy would encourage people to live in places not at risk for flooding, the kind of human tragedy that we are witnessing now might be mitigated.
Bill Jefferys, Austin (TX) Monthly Meeting, now living in Vermont.
The price [of private flood insurance] is so high that "nobody" can afford it. Of course, other commentators are saying that we can't afford to give up the Port of New Orleans. Clearly both these things cannot be true at the same time.
Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.
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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.
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Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.