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Defending the Katrina Aid Effort

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Commentator Austin Bay did relief work with refugees fleeing Congo in 2002. He says criticism of the federal relief effort in the Mississippi Gulf springs from ignorance about the realities of giving aid.

AUSTIN BAY:

Katrina's aftermath has left southern Louisiana and Mississippi as devastated as any war zone, and having worked in an international disaster recovery operation, I'm actually impressed with many aspects of America's response to the challenge.

Considering the personnel and logistics requirements and the damaged transportation networks, National Guard relief trucks arriving in New Orleans within three days of their units' activation is a commendable feat. Within seven days of the disaster, Texas alone had received over 150,000 evacuees. American volunteers have appeared en masse, ready, willing and able to act, like my eldest daughter, who's been helping distribute clothing to evacuees at the Astrodome. One week after Katrina, medicine, food and clothing are flowing into relief centers throughout the Southwestern and Southeastern United States.

Critics who grouse that response to Katrina's devastation has been `abysmally slow' need to ask: Compared to what? Slow compared to our American expectations is the correct answer. I can guarantee you, no other nation on the planet could respond to this extraordinary natural disaster as rapidly and comprehensively as America has.

I suspect many Americans have a rather unrealistic idea of how relief efforts are conducted in other parts of the world. Perhaps they have an unrealistic idea, period. Often, major media in this country don't become aware of the extent of many international crises, natural or human-caused, until months after they've begun, or until relief efforts are well under way. Sudan's Darfur is a bitter example.

I know responding effectively means having timely and accurate information about the dimensions of a crisis. However, since Katrina, our media have flooded the disaster area. Americans get overwhelming minute-by-minute information, little of it actually new, much of it rumor, creating unrealistic fears and expectations. In the Congo or the south Asian tsunami, in so many mega-disasters around the planet, the initial tragedy is compounded because neighboring regions or nations can't provide sustained aid. Like human waves, the refugees wash from one poor country to another.

But America has infrastructure, abundant supplies, logistical capacity, a plethora of means, combined with the will to act. And we're seeing that. With the city of Houston opening its doors to the dispossessed, with universities and public schools throughout the country making room for students from hurricane-ravaged areas, I see America responding to Katrina's tragedy, and responding decisively.

Watch what happens over the next month, as American aid organizations, religious groups and willing individuals meet the challenge. America's great wealth is matched by its comparative efficiency and splendid generosity.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Austin Bay, a nationally syndicated columnist and colonel in the US Army Reserve, and he's the author of "The Wrong Side of Brightness."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Austin Bay