Published August 31, 2005
VIENNA, Austria – From papal prayers to telegrams from China, the world reacted with an outpouring of compassion Wednesday for the victims of Hurricane Katrina (search) in messages tinged by shock that a disaster of this scale could occur in the United States.
Islamic extremists rejoiced in America's misfortune, giving the storm a military rank and declaring in Internet chatter that "Private" Katrina had joined the global jihad, or holy war. With "God's help," they declared, oil prices would hit $100 a barrel this year.
Venezuela's (search) government, which has had tense relations with Washington, offered humanitarian aid and fuel if requested.
The storm was seen as an equalizer — proof that any country, weak or strong, can be victimized by a natural disaster. Images of flood-ravaged New Orleans (search) earned particular sympathy in central Europe, where dozens died in raging floodwaters only days ago.
"Nature proved that no matter how rich and economically developed you are, you can't fight it," says Danut Afasei, a local official in Romania's Harghita county, where flooding killed 13 people last week.
Throughout Europe, concerned citizens lamented the loss of life and the damage caused to New Orleans, often described as one of North America's most "European" cities.
French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sent messages of sympathy to President Bush. Chirac, who has famously quarreled with Bush over the Iraq war, addressed this letter, "Dear George."
Pope Benedict XVI said he was praying for victims of the "tragic" hurricane while China's President Hu Jintao expressed his "belief that that the American people will definitely overcome the natural disaster and rebuild their beautiful homeland."
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II also sent a message to Bush saying she was "deeply shocked and saddened" at the devastation caused by the hurricane and expressing her condolences, "especially to the families of those who have lost their lives, to the injured and to all who have been affected by this terrible disaster."
The U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland — a capital at the foot of the Alps hit by flooding last week — said calls were rushing in from Swiss individuals and institutions looking for a way to donate to relief efforts.
"We are getting calls from the Swiss public looking to express their condolences, (and) people are also asking for an account number where they can make donations," said spokesman Daniel Wendell.
The Internet-edition Vienna daily Der Standard had recorded 820 postings commenting on a front-page story on the hurricane. In one of the postings, signature "Emerald" asked where money could be donated to the victims, but the question sparked a debate about whether a rich country like the United States needed such aid.
In response, one posting, from signature "far out," argued that hurricane victims who are poor still needed support.
Amid the sympathy, however, there was criticism.
As U.S. military engineers struggled to shore up breached levees, experts in the Netherlands expressed surprise that New Orleans' flood systems failed to restrain the raging waters.
With half of the country's population of 16 million living below sea level, the Netherlands prepared for a "perfect storm" soon after floods in 1953 killed 2,000 people. The nation installed massive hydraulic sea walls.
"I don't want to sound overly critical, but it's hard to imagine that (the damage caused by Katrina) could happen in a Western country," said Ted Sluijter, spokesman for the park where the sea walls are exhibited. "It seemed like plans for protection and evacuation weren't really in place, and once it happened, the coordination was on loose hinges."
The sympathy was muted in some corners by a sense that the United States reaped what it sowed, since the country is seen as the main contributor to global warming.
Joern Ehlers, a spokesman for World Wildlife Fund Germany, said global warming had increased the intensity of hurricanes.
"The Americans have a big impact on the greenhouse effect," Ehlers said.
But Harlan L. Watson, the U.S. envoy for negotiations on climate change, denied any link between global warming and the strength of storms.
"Our scientists are telling us right now that there's not a linkage," he said in Geneva. "I'll rely on their information."