Only after the horrifying devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina did the United States begin for the first time to consider accepting assistance from other countries around the world following a catastrophe. But when the federal government had a chance again to do just that, it neglected gestures of aid coming from the international community as oil billowed from the ocean floor causing the greatest environmental disaster in the nation’s history.

Two experts say that’s a mistake. Writing for George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute last month, they argued the offers of support weren’t just symbolic table scraps that wouldn’t significantly help limit the damage.

Sweden, the pair cites as an example, made available three newly built Coast Guard vessels early in the spill designed specifically for cleaning up such messes. The ships are capable of sucking up 50 tons of oil an hour from the ocean’s surface and can retain 1,000 tons in their bellies. But by June, Sweden’s offer was still merely under consideration.

According to the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano and institute deputy director Daniel Kaniewski, who helped pen an after-action report on Katrina for the Bush administration:

The delay in accepting offers of assistance is unacceptable. The international community possesses specialized equipment and technical expertise that, if the U.S. has at all, is in limited supply. Even now that the Obama administration is finally waking up to this reality – months into the disaster – by slowly accepting offers of assistance, there seems to be a failure to coordinate the assistance offered and to communicate the administration’s needs to the international community. Both bear striking resemblance to the failed response to Hurricane Katrina.

They further complain that the administration has been “characteristically deferential to BP” allowing the company responsible for the spill to decide what it needs while not aggressively leading the response itself. Cost should no longer be a concern if it turns out some allies offering resources expect to eventually be reimbursed. Such a thing is common in disaster recovery, even between federal bureaucracies here when personnel and supplies are provided to FEMA by another agency.

The devastation is unprecedented and threatens greater economic consequences to the southeastern United States making cost less of an issue now. Besides, Kaniewski and Carafano wrote, BP will, or at least should, cover those expenses, especially since the company has already set aside $20 billion for response and recovery.

Flickr image by Nils Reiter

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.