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Trump Administration Hasn’t Decided Whether To Accept Harvey Help From Mexico

Jessica Schulberg

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WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration has not decided whether it will accept aid from Mexico to help victims of the hurricane that has devastated swaths of Texas and overwhelmed emergency responders.

“If a need for assistance does arise, we will work with our partners, including Mexico, to determine the best way forward,” the White House and State Department said in identical statements after Mexico offered “help and cooperation” to aid U.S. recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which has killed at least nine people, displaced tens of thousands and destroyed countless homes.

Asked if the Trump administration’s assessment is that there is no need for assistance from Mexico, the White House referred HuffPost to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which punted to the State Department, which directed questions back to FEMA.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray spoke with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott by telephone on Sunday evening to offer his country’s support. The Republican governor told reporters on Monday that his staff would communicate with Mexican government officials about specific needs. 

“Our offering is open and permanent,” Carlos Sada, Mexico’s undersecretary for North America, told HuffPost on Monday evening. The Mexican government is waiting for Abbott to send a list specifying both the immediate and long-term needs of hurricane victims in Texas, Sada said. 

The Mexican government made a formal assistance offer to the State Department on Tuesday, a State Department spokeswoman told HuffPost. The department will decide with FEMA whether to accept the aid, said the spokeswoman, who declined to specify the type of assistance Mexico is offering. 

The Mexican government has proved willing and able to provide crucial help to Americans in the wake of previous natural disasters. In September 2005, days after Hurricane Katrina wiped out cities along the Gulf Coast, soldiers from the Mexican army rolled across the border in a 45-vehicle convoy and set up camp at a former Air Force base near San Antonio. Over the next three weeks, the Mexican soldiers served 170,000 meals to hurricane victims, distributed 184,000 tons of supplies, and conducted more than 500 medical consultations, recalled Stephen Kelly, a former diplomat who was serving at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City at the time. Mexican sailors also offered rescue-and-recovery assistance, and helped clear storm debriHarvey, projected to dump up to 50 inches of rain over parts of southeastern Texas, will displace an estimated 30,000 people. Texas law enforcement agencies tweeted requests for volunteers with boats to assist in rescue operations. FEMA has already mobilized all 28 of its urban search and rescue teams, a step it has not been taken since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Jeffrey Stern, state coordinator at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management tweeted.

In the midst of a natural disaster, the U.S. government can be slow to accept foreign assistance because of the bureaucratic hassle involved in clearing materials brought into the country and securing access for foreigners on short notice, said Kelly. But he advised the current administration to take advantage of the offer from its southern neighbor ― both because of Mexico’s close proximity to Texas and because of the symbolic message that cooperation between the two countries would send.

Trump, who announced his candidacy for president with a speech that described Mexicans as “rapists,” has strained the historically close relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. On Sunday, as Hurricane Harvey raged through Texas, Trump tweeted that Mexico will pay for a wall on its northern border, that the country has high crime rates, and that he might “terminate” a free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada because the U.S. allies are “being very difficult.”

The Mexican Foreign Ministry responded by stating that it will not pay for the wall, that crime is a shared problem between the two countries, and that it will not renegotiate NAFTA “through social networks or the media.” The statement ended with an offer to help the U.S. government respond to the storm, “as good neighbors should always do in times of difficulty.”

Kyle Souder, a 22-year-old student at the University of Houston whose car was flooded, said he was frustrated with the president for tweeting about the border wall as the hurricane spread through Texas. “Mexico sent their own people to help during Katrina and you want to tweet this Shit right now?” Souder tweeted at Trump on Sunday.

“I feel like we do need foreign aid,” Souder told HuffPost on Monday. “We’re completely underwater.”