When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services turned to Maryland this week for help in assisting Americans fortunate enough to have fled Lebanon, state agencies responded in ways that should make us feel a little less helpless about the crisis unfolding in the Middle East. Alerted that the first of perhaps three planes carrying hundreds of evacuees is expected to arrive this morning at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the Ehrlich administration immediately prepared to make sure that the passengers have a soft landing.
Too bad things couldn't have started off better for them overseas. As many as 25,000 U.S. citizens living in or visiting Lebanon were caught in the conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah militia that erupted a week ago after two Israeli soldiers were abducted near the border. For Americans visiting their families or studying in and around Beirut, the fear of finding themselves as potential victims of Israeli warplanes must have turned absolutely nightmarish when they realized there was no quick exit.
Belatedly, the Pentagon began evacuation efforts via helicopters and amphibious vessels. That should have brought some needed relief to the stranded civilians, but bureaucratic nitpickers, citing a little-known 2003 law, threatened to tarnish the rescue effort by requiring evacuees to sign promissory notes pledging that they would repay the U.S. government the cost of getting them out of danger. Congressional Democrats assailed the Bush administration's response to carrying Americans out of Lebanon as a "mini-Katrina." But the government's handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster was plain ineptitude. Asking people to sign a chit (the State Department later waived the requirement) before they board a chopper in a fire zone is muleheadedness. It's like searching the Titanic's passengers for dining room silverware before letting them into the lifeboats.
When the evacuees arrive at BWI, state agencies will be there to provide them with cash, lodging, food, first aid, mental health crisis counseling, transportation and child care. The one thing they're not going to get is a pen and a promissory note. That's Maryland's promise.