Mexico and Hurricane Katrina

The Ejército Mexicano (Mexican Army) rolled into Nuevo Laredo on September 8, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina slammed into southern Louisiana after making landfall in New Orleans. A line of forty-five military vehicles filled with up to 195 military personnel drove along IH-35 as they worked their way to San Antonio, Texas. [1] The convoys were headed straight to relief operations in San Antonio in response to Hurricane Katrina, marking the first time the Mexican Army was in San Antonio since the Texas Revolution in 1846. The response from the Mexican Army was unexpected and grand. Mexican troops drove to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to assist with clean-up efforts and offer resources to those displaced. The hurricane was responsible for more than 1,800 deaths and over $120 billion dollars in damage. Much of southern Louisiana was destroyed, leaving many without food and water. [2] According to Colonel Ignacio Murillo Rodríguez of the Mexican Ministry of Defense, the Mexican military served more than 170,000 meals and 184,000 tons of supplies. The Mexican government’s response would go on to draw endless comparisons between the US and Mexico.

Hurricane Katrina was both a natural disaster and an engineering disaster. The situation was made much worse as levees broke, pumping stations failed and canals overflowed. [3] Despite these engineering failures, many attribute the large loss of life to human error in which the disaster planning and emergency response both failed the people of New Orleans. Mexico’s response not only surpassed expectations, but it also surpassed efforts of the United States for their own citizens.

The day Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) sent his condolences to US President George W. Bush and offered any resources that the US may need. Rescue experts from the state of Jalisco were sent to the US to assist with rescue efforts as well. Both the Mexican Navy and the Mexican Air Force got involved in rescue attempts as Mexico extended their hand to the United States. The Mexican government’s response was also heavily aimed at helping the Mexican community in the US. For example, just hours after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Mexican government had sent aid workers to the Houston Astrodome to assist Mexican nationals displaced by the storm. [4] There were an estimated 100,00 Mexican nationals who lived in the areas affected by Katrina. Mexican nationals wishing to return home were provided money to assist with their travel expenses. The efforts of the Mexican government differed from the United States’ lack of response after Hurricane Wilma stranded many Americans on the Yucatan Peninsula. The effort displayed towards helping Mexican nationals was just the beginning, and it is stated that United States government officials initially felt embarrassed to accept aid from Mexico. Eventually, the assistance from Mexico would prove to be vital and necessary given the scale of resources they were able to provide.

Mexican authorities dispatched naval ships, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, amphibious vehicles, tankers, radio communications equipment, medical personnel, 250 tons of food and 387 naval personnel to assist with rescue efforts. After being initially turned away off the Mississippi coast, the US Coast Guard finally accepted Mexican aid. More aid was transported in trucks through Texas to Louisiana, such as 160 tons of food. An additional 200 tons of food was delivered in five Mexican air force transport planes. The Mexican Army’s efforts were much appreciated, but many wondered about why the Mexican government was so willing to offer resources. [5] Some reporters speculated the response was to engage in political opportunism or make a spectacle of the United States. However, the Mexican press and opponents of Vicente Fox believed that the aid was being used as leverage to change US immigrations laws in favor of Mexicans. Some Americans shared this same sentiment. Anti-immigrant groups especially felt that Mexico had gained leverage over the US, which was cause for alarm.

The Mexican government and newspapers were the most critical of the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina, even compared to the critiques made by officials in Louisiana. Mexican efforts drew comparisons between the US and Mexican relief efforts. One article in Granma, a reporter asked where the US government was with their army and equipment. In El Universal, one reporter stated that the destruction was not solely dependent on the natural destruction of the hurricane, but also the response to such emergencies. Some Mexican officials compared Bush’s response and failures to that of Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid’s response to the earthquake that shook the Federal District of Mexico City in September in 1985.

The treatment of minorities following Hurricane Katrina was not lost on Mexican officials. About 80 percent of the population in New Orleans had evacuated. Those left behind were predominantly poor, elderly, and African American. While officials knew these people did not have the ability to leave, a plan was not put in place for them. The United States’ relief efforts and FEMA were an embarrassment as they were inadequately prepared and had many living in unbearable conditions in the Superdome. [6] Most importantly, the lack of preparedness once again drew comparisons. For example, while President Fox vowed to assist all Mexican nationals living in the United States during this time regardless of citizenship status, the United States did not do the same. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security refused to grant immunity to Mexican immigrants affected by the hurricane who were living in the United States. Instead, the only form of support for Mexicans affected was their own community, Catholic charities, and the Mexican government.

Mexico’s involvement during Hurricane Katrina was not only vital and lifesaving, but it also amplified immigration issues in the United States. Mexico’s response shined a light on the issue of race and class as minorities and the poor were the hardest hit during Hurricane Katrina. During a period of racial tension, it is important to remember the time Mexico lent a hand to help Americans in need.