Published: December 2005
Hope in Hell
When disasters strike nations and aid agencies rally to help.
By Chris Carroll and Edward Girardet

Part One: Deadly Delay - Katrina: Grasping for Relief
By Chris Carroll
National GeographicStaff

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, a world accustomed to global projections of American power—including international relief efforts after such disasters as the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran—witnessed that same power reduced to impotence.

Certainly what happened later was more comforting. In the month after Katrina devastated a swath of Louisiana and Mississippi (with Rita not far behind) tens of billions of dollars of emergency aid appropriations were rushed through Congress. Convoys of aid flowed south. People pledged over a billion dollars to the Red Cross.

But the fact that the nation's aid mechanisms eventually seemed to get on track doesn't erase the disgrace of the first week after the storm, when people without food or water suffered and died in a major metropolitan area and when government emergency managers and aid organizations couldn't deliver relief. Katrina behaved exactly like the monster storm scientists and local officials knew would one day drown New Orleans (they'd even practiced with a model storm a year before). The death trap the Big Easy was allowed to become is likely to redound to the U.S.'s discredit for years.

Labor Day morning in Houston (seven days after Katrina) saw volunteers jammed elbow to elbow behind steam tables, shoveling eggs, sausage, and potatoes. There were so many people helping that the effort to feed the quiet, traumatized people from flooded New Orleans, bused to shelter at the city's convention center, seemed almost like a competition. One American city was trying desperately to rescue another. Red Cross officials on local talk radio begged Houstonites to stop bringing food donations to the major shelters because they were blocking giant aid shipments from local corporations. A frustrated restaurateur trying to get 500 pizzas to displaced children in the Astrodome couldn't find a way to deliver them.

I'd just arrived in Houston from New Orleans. As I waited to check in at my downtown hotel, I met a refugee whose family had, that morning, been helped by a wealthy woman to move from a shelter into a brace of suites at the hotel. The family was now preparing to move to two apartments—the first few months rent paid for by the same woman.

Hearing that story was like breathing clean air for the first time in days. I had driven alone from New Orleans, but the disgust and sadness at what I had seen there felt like passengers in the truck with me. People go to jail, I kept thinking as I drove west on I-10, for keeping animals in conditions the same as those endured by tens of thousands of people trapped for days at the Superdome and the Convention Center in New Orleans.

I'd had my first glimpse of rescue gone awry on Friday, September 2, as I drove over the Mississippi River into downtown New Orleans. I saw a pickup headed in the opposite direction on the bridge, its cab and bed packed with perhaps a dozen men, women, and children. The pickup pulled a bass boat similarly loaded with human cargo. To me, the entourage looked like an extended family of African Americans trying to escape the metro area. Gas, food, and lodging were all available about 30 miles west.

The police on the bridge acted like the group was a potential raiding party intent on sacking Gretna, a suburb just across the bridge. "Turn it around!" a plainclothes police officer shouted as he strode purposefully toward the slowly approaching truck. The driver brought the truck to a halt and pleaded his family's case. "TURN IT AROUND—NOW!" the officer bellowed. Several others, heavily armed, stepped up, and the driver got the message. Nearby a couple slumped against a concrete traffic barrier next to a supply-laden grocery cart they'd been trying to push over the bridge until they, too, had been turned back.

Later I saw what the people on the bridge had been trying unsuccessfully to escape. The Convention Center—now four days after the hurricane—was a kaleidoscope of human degradation festering in the late summer heat.

People had been pouring into the building since Monday. It was not until Thursday that soldiers had dumped food and water from hovering helicopters. "It's the looters breaking into stores and bringing food and water that have kept us alive," said a man named Brandon Jackson.

On Friday afternoon a late-model Chrysler barreled around the corner from Julia Street and headed south on Convention Center Boulevard. It jerked to a stop in front of the building, and a young man with cornrow braids wearing a giant T-shirt and baggy jeans stepped out. A young woman who rode in with him threw open the trunk, which was filled with crates of orange drink. As people from the crowd swarmed the car, she shouted that the delivery was specifically for women with young children. Where, someone asked the driver—who at that moment was eyeing a Humvee full of heavily armed National Guardsmen who had arrived that morning, apparently not to help people but to guard them—did the juice come from? The young man shrugged and said, "Mmm, just found it."

It would be reported later that domestic and international aid shipments and professional relief workers had been stuck in airports and hotels and idling in trucks while government bureaucrats discussed how to deploy resources. The American Red Cross, meanwhile, had been ordered by the Department of Homeland Security to stay out of New Orleans. The more unpleasant the city was, the reasoning went, the more residents would want to leave—never mind if they had no way to do so.

For now, the young man and young woman were the only humanitarian aid I could see in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I wanted to ask them if they'd heard about the Louisiana governor's shoot-to-kill order, delivered the previous day after news reports of thugs ruling the streets and looters stripping abandoned stores of TVs. I'd been told that the local police, at least, were looking the other way when people scavenged for necessities. Still, I wouldn't have wanted to be in the shoes of a young black man in baggy attire in an abandoned store. But he and the girl jumped in the car and were gone before I could ask the question.

Part Two: When the World Forgets, Who Comes to Help?
By Edward Girardet

When a tsunami killed more than 225,000 people along the coast of the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, an unprecedented global relief effort reached full throttle within days. But rebuilding Aceh, Indonesia, and other devastated areas could take a decade. After other tragedies, aid has often evaporated: Tens of thousands of people remain _in shelters in Bam, Iran, where an earthquake_razed the ancient city a year to the day before the _tsunami. In Afghanistan, four years after coalition forces ousted the Taliban from power, relief workers increasingly risk their own lives in the still war-torn land. Meanwhile some 30,000 children must hide every night from brutal insurgents in a two-decade-old conflict in northern Uganda. One thing is _certain: The media will move on to the next crisis. Then how far does humanitarian aid reach?

Aceh, Indonesia

As the Malaysian army helicopter lurched forward, hugging the western coastline of Indonesia's tsunami-battered Aceh Province, I clung to the half-open portal, mesmerized by the devastation that unfolded below me. The few trees that had survived the watery onslaught of just a couple weeks ago stood like solitary sentinels along newly created shorelines and inlets. It was as if the wooden homesteads and rice fields in these Indian Ocean communities had been carefully—and diabolically—plucked up from the Earth.

For close to two miles inland the muddy land was shorn of any trace of human existence. Then, just on the other side of the "front line," where the tsunami's surge had run out of impetus, I could see the tiny figures of farmers tending rice fields and children playing in the mango trees.

Tony Banbury, regional director of the World Food Programme (WFP), stood beside me. Banbury's concern was to deliver food, especially to the tens of thousands of people cut off from the rest of the country. "This means we're going to have to bring in supplies by air or sea," he shouted over the aircraft's throbbing rotors, pointing to the partly submerged asphalt road that used to lace along the coast.

At least supplies were available. Within days of the tsunami, WFP had tracked down two commercial ships loaded with rice sailing up Indonesia's Malacca Strait. For the first time since we'd met, Banbury preceded his words with a satisfied grin: "We got lucky. We were able to redirect the ships to ports for immediate distribution to survivors."

As the helicopter swung low over the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, the khaki-clad American kept his gaze fixed on the scene below, grasping a metal frame to keep his balance. "I've never seen anything quite like this," he said.

Neither had I. Certainly not broadcast on TV around the world 24-7.

I struggled to identify anything recognizable on the ground. Two years earlier I'd traveled to Aceh to report on the region's ongoing civil war. Now its familiar landmarks were gone, and the tiny airport was transformed by the global mobi-lization of human and material resources. A sprawling phalanx of military encampments had mushroomed on either side of the single runway. It looked like a Boy Scout jamboree many thousands strong: British, French, Japanese—about a dozen national flags fluttered in the warm wind. Tents stood shoulder-to-shoulder in regimented rows; others of different shapes and colors perched randomly around them. Aid workers and soldiers stacked food and medical supplies along the runway aprons, oblivious to the constant roar of Antonov transport planes, C-130s, and helicopters.

By the time I'd arrived, in mid-January, in the northern Sumatran city of Medan, a principal launching pad for the relief effort in Aceh Province, the area was swarming with aid workers, journalists, and military personnel. They'd been frantically dispatched within days of the tsunami by governments, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world.

Aid organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, CARE, and the International Res-cue Committee also soon found themselves competing for space with newcomers to the humanitarian relief scene. The Church of Scientology, for instance, flew in dozens of smiling young volunteers. Wearing bright yellow T-shirts, they hoisted colorful banners and tents smack in the middle of Banda Aceh. One smiling American college student raved about the amazing things the church was doing in the treatment of child trauma. Meanwhile, young Islamic militants, some wearing face masks, drove around in truck convoys. Their principal concern was to give relief, to clean mosques, and provide as many bodies as possible with proper Muslim burials.

The place teemed with a high-adrenaline "we're all in this together" camaraderie. On the airport runway I watched a group of Indonesian Red Cross volunteers climb aboard a Singaporean military transport plane, exhausted yet wistful. "What I will remember most is how all these countries came here to help," said 27-year-old Jailani, a student from Borneo. He shifted the heavy backpack on his slight shoulders and disappeared into the plane.

Not far from the tarmac, soldiers from an Australian engineering regiment worked in camouflage fatigues, hauling heavy equipment for a water purification plant that would eventually process more than 5,000 gallons an hour. Taking a break, they cracked a few jokes, then turned serious. "We're trained for warfare," said a corporal with short-cropped hair. "But in some ways this sort of experience is more sobering. Perhaps it makes us better human beings."

Perhaps. But several long-term coordinators and some international relief workers redeployed from vital humanitarian efforts elsewhere, notably Africa, were resigned to the uneven allocation of international aid resources. One World Health Organization representative reminded me that the HIV/AIDS pandemic kills as many people as this tsunami every three weeks.

Even as relief workers distributed vitamin-reinforced, high-energy biscuits to hungry children, or dug latrines for emergency shelters, I heard voices raised in distress at the massive influx of aid. The existing infrastructure in Aceh Province was overburdened, there were absolutely no seats available on planes, ground facilities overflowed with supplies, some of which—winter clothing and out-of-date medications—were inappropriate.

Nigel Snoad, a 33-year-old Australian who headed the UN Joint Logistics Centre in Banda Aceh, had a different complaint. "In the past 28 minutes I've missed 59 calls," he said, waving his ringing cell phone. Snoad said the overkill reac-tion was causing enormous problems with field operations, and he baptized the flood of phone calls and the never ending inquiries from diplomats, NGOs, and volunteers Asia's "second tsunami." For the worn-out aid coordinator, the situation had reached "an insane level of chaos." "When," he asked, "is anyone going to have the guts to tell them that we have enough? That we don't need any more?"

"It's perfectly understandable that people want to help, but this sort of situation needs organizations with experience receiving and distributing resources," said an agitated Danish Red Cross official. "I know this sounds harsh, but it really doesn't help to come here or to bring things that aren't needed. When people ask to help, we tell them the best thing is to donate money."

They did send money. Millions around the world stayed riveted to TV screens—watching homes obliterated and bloated bodies washing up on beaches. They called 800 numbers, they logged on to emergency websites, they pledged something, anything, to help. By depicting the tsunami as an unprecedented global phenomenon, the media helped ensure that it became one of the largest humanitarian operations ever: almost seven billion dollars in emergency relief aid from private and government sources—far more than the aid organizations could ever hope to spend for that purpose.

"This shows how grotesquely skewed international humanitarian aid is toward high-profile crises," says Jonathan Walter, the New Delhi–based editor of the World Disasters Report, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"Somehow, people just seem to accept that Africans are starving or getting killed. It's no big deal," commented Dr. Kees Rietveld, a veteran humanitarian health worker. "But when you have blond Swedish children or a Czech fashion model swept away by some tidal wave, that's a totally different matter."

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo four million people are believed to have died since 1998—almost 98 percent in 2003 and 2004 from war-induced starvation and disease. And despite renewed interest in Sudan's conflict and the famine-ridden Darfur region in early 2005 (primarily the result of a political settlement between the warring north and south but also because of interest in the region's significant oil reserves), the International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies say responses tend to flag when media coverage dwindles. Only when widespread reports like those last summer revealed scores of children dead of starvation in Niger, did the world heed earlier warnings by the UN. Still, in early August, Niger's President Mamadou Tandja called reports of famine in his country false propaganda by the UN.

"Humanitarian responses are a bit like a lottery," says Jan Egeland, head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York. "The 30-odd crisis-ridden societies around the world play that lottery every night. But only one or two a year will win—if they're lucky."

Bam, Iran

One year to the day before a massive earthquake under the Indian Ocean sent walls of water crashing over the shores of South Asia, another temblor shook the Earth. It happened in the early hours of December 26, 2003. The quake registered 6.6 and took only seconds to flatten four-fifths of the traditional mud-and-brick buildings in the ancient city of Bam, Iran. Among them was 2,000-year-old Arg-e Bam, the world's largest mud citadel.

As with the tsunami, the response was imme-diate. Two hours after the quake, the first relief teams from the Iranian Red Crescent Society, racing in four-wheel-drive vehicles along the narrow road leading from the provincial capital of Kerman, reached the devastated city. To their surprise, much of the rural outskirts remained relatively unscathed. But as they drew closer to the heart of Bam, the damage was shocking. While some of the aid workers immediately began pulling survivors from beneath piles of rubble, others set about the crucial task of assessing the damage to determine emergency relief needs.

By ten in the morning the Red Crescent Society was holding its first emergency meetings, based on initial field dispatches to its downtown headquarters in Tehran, Iran's capital. As more details filtered in, the aid agency began mobilizing some 18,000 volunteers, many of them specially trained in disaster response, for imme- diate deployment to Bam. Tens of thousands more of the society's two million supporters began to collect donations—money, clothes, and blankets—to help the victims.

Less than 24 hours after the quake, the first field assessment came in: 20,000 people dead, another 50,000 injured, and tens of thousands of survivors homeless.

"It was a horrific scene," says Mostafa Mohag-hegh, head of the Red Crescent's international office in Tehran. "There were bodies everywhere. The stench was unbelievable. Everything had been destroyed. Even the newer buildings that had not collapsed were badly damaged, the metal twisted and the concrete caved in."

Although scattered date palms penetrated the rubble virtually unscathed across the city, one of the only buildings left undamaged was the Red Crescent youth center in the middle of town. It was here that the Iranians established their field headquarters, which quickly became a nerve center packed with aid coordinators, computers, communications equipment, generators, and boxes of supplies.

Just as in Aceh, international aid agencies flocked to the scene. They began arriving in Bam the morning after the quake, including Swiss teams trained in disaster rescue. The Swiss came with their own equipment, emergency doctors, and search dogs. The controllers at Bam airport, with its terminal barely standing and all technical equipment knocked out, had to direct the high-volume air traffic visually, a risky procedure.

Survivors were found in the rubble by both foreign and local rescue workers, but for most it was too late by the time rescuers got to them. "After the first day or two there is no point," says Mohaghegh. "We found almost no one alive after that. But rescue groups from abroad kept arriving for days afterward. That was a waste of time and money."

Overall, an estimated 1,800 foreign aid workers from 44 countries came to Bam, most during the first month of the emergency phase. Their principal task was to assist the thousands of homeless. While the majority of the victims killed had been asleep in their homes when the quake hit, many of the survivors had gotten up early for morning prayers. Some were headed to the outskirts of the city to sturdy domed mosques, none of which sustained serious damage. Still, because people in Bam live in large extended families, a staggering number had lost scores of relatives—fathers, mothers, and children. Many threw themselves relentlessly into relief work, not only to help but also to try to forget. Almost all had also lost their homes and were now without shelter.

Governments and private individuals pledged generously, as they did a year later in the wake of the tsunami, to aid in emergency relief: 131 million dollars in all. But when photographer John Stanmeyer arrived late last May, Iranian officials said barely 17 million dollars had actually arrived. Furthermore, few international NGOs remained at work in Bam. A blanket of collapsed buildings and a few battered palm trees still defined the landscape. Many survivors had not returned to the sites of their former homes except to scavenge for belongings: a twisted bed frame, perhaps, or a dented pot. Dust coated everything.

A few months earlier, Doctors Without Borders had requested that tsunami donors begin sending unrestricted funds. The organization began tracking down tens of thousands of donors worldwide, offering to return to them a surplus of millions of dollars—or asking that they allow the money to be redirected. "Yes," was the overwhelming reply. In the end, Doctors Without Borders redirected 30 million dollars of tsunami money.

Little consolation for Bam. Still, with the help of such organizations as the World Bank and UNESCO, Bam has put together a master reconstruction plan. Much of the city will be rebuilt from scratch, designed by a team of prominent architects and consultants, with playgrounds and green recreational spaces—and earthquake-resistant buildings. Only the ancient mud citadel, an indispensable cultural monument, is to be restored to its previous state.

Construction codes will be enforced—those that address the quake-prone geologic nature of Iran, seismically active like California and Japan, where large earthquakes take many fewer lives because of earthquake-resistant engineering. Even the adobe brick that collapsed so easily in Bam can be strengthened. Nader Khalili, an Iranian-American architect now at the CalEarth Institute in California, binds adobe with barbed wire, a building method approved by California officials.

Although many of Bam's residents remain uprooted, normal life is slowly returning. Businesses and local bazaars with tented tea shops or makeshift food stands—wooden crates or tables laden with onions, powdered milk, or sugar—have popped up along the main thoroughfares. Toward the outskirts, people are living in prefabricated houses that have replaced the tents that served as temporary shelter.

Life is changing, too, in this conservative city. Women who lost their menfolk now rely on themselves to deal with bureaucracy and run a family business. While there is enor-mous pride among survivors—and emotion-al attachment to their city and its cultural heritage—many strive to rekindle businesses in order to reduce dependence on aid. "The earthquake may have destroyed the past," says Mohaghegh, "but it may also have created a new era here."


Nitin Madhav is no stranger to the risks of humanitarian relief. On his first mission for Doctors of the World, in 1997, his team was attacked by Interahamwe, a rebel group, a few days after he arrived in Kigali, Rwanda. Three colleagues were killed; Madhav survived by pretending to be dead, but his left leg had to be amputated.

Now, four years after coalition forces in Afghan-istan toppled the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, when Madhav works in the capital city of Kabul he is surrounded by concertina wire in the American Embassy compound. He and his colleagues with the U.S. Agency for International Development venture beyond city limits only with the embassy's security detail or a military escort.

Humanitarian space, where aid workers can operate neutrally without interference in conflict zones like Afghanistan, has become harder to define. In lawless frontline zones, aid workers themselves have become targets, victims of a Kalashnikov culture where gun-toting civilians target aid workers for a variety of self-serving purposes.

While much of the violence has been concentrated in a clutch of countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan—and in central Africa, humanitarian workers are deliberately, and increasingly, targeted elsewhere. From July 2003 to July 2004, more than a hundred UN and NGO personnel were killed. "This makes the work of agencies more precarious," wrote Denis Caillaux of CARE International. "But worse than that, every time workers are targeted or cannot operate for fear of attack, it's the civilians who pay the price." Indeed, Doctors Without Borders closed down operations in Afghanistan after five of its workers were assassinated in 2004. The organization protested that the Kabul government made no attempts to arrest the suspected perpetrators.

"The trouble is that even with relief workers getting kidnapped and killed, you soon find yourself regarding everything as normal," says Leslie Wilson, a former American Peace Corps volunteer now with Save the Children in Kabul. "It's all relative, and that's dangerous. Tolerance levels go up. Just look at the horrors that occur in conflict zones like Darfur, where the military thinks it's OK to kill aid workers and civilians."

As in many conflict situations, aid workers withstand the risks they face by indulging in the pleasures of their former lives. "You've got to be careful, but you've also got to live," said Amaury Coste, a 32-year-old Frenchman who invited me to a dinner party. Coste and I had traveled to eastern Afghanistan's Nuristan and Konar Provinces two years earlier. Today, both are no-go areas for aid workers and journalists (last June rebels shot down a Chinook helicopter in Konar, killing all 16 U.S. soldiers on board).

The evening of Coste's dinner party the mood was relaxed in his modest rental house in one of Kabul's war-shattered western districts. The host lounged against pillows on a ruby red carpet, smiling in anticipation of the kabuli (rice with mutton) that his Afghan cook had prepared, and the flavorful red wine that would complement the traditional dish. As usual, the conversation turned to security issues. For the past three years Coste and some of his friends had taken part in the internationally supported recovery operation by producing such innovative media proj-ects as traveling theater to raise environmental awareness and comic books for children on constitutional reform.

After dinner Coste walked me out into the cold spring night. "By the way, we're going skiing up by the Salang this weekend. Why not join us?" he suggested, referring to the mighty, snow-clad Hindu Kush range just north of Kabul.

I felt a rush of adrenaline as I imagined skiing those slopes. But then I hesitated.

"What about land mines?" I asked, slightly embarrassed.

"It's best not to think of them," Coste answered with a shrug. "One's got to be philosophical about these things."