By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. delegations sharply criticized the United Nations' management on Monday for an almost "total breakdown in communications" with the world body's 193 member states after superstorm Sandy slammed into the U.S. East Coast a week ago.
The head of U.N. security, Gregory Starr, said last week that U.N. headquarters suffered severe damage when Sandy caused heavy flooding in basement levels of the world body's Manhattan complex along the East River. The headquarters remained closed for three days before reopening on Thursday.
Speaking at a standing-room-only meeting of the U.N. General Assembly's budget committee on the damage caused by Sandy, Algerian U.N. Ambassador Mourad Benmehidi said the United Nations ceased communicating with member states who were desperate for information.
"We all feel that the United Nations disappeared from the screens of the members for a very long time," the Algerian envoy said, adding that the world body also "disappeared from the screen of the world."
Benmehidi added that he did not agree with Starr's compliments to U.N. staff for their handling of the crisis, dismissing them as a "self-congratulatory assessment."
Starr told reporters last week that U.N. headquarters suffered "major damage" to its cooling systems, electrical switchboards and other sensitive technology due to flooding.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Management Yukio Takasu repeated on Monday that it was too early to assess the damage costs, though he said some of it would be covered by insurance. He said he hoped to have an estimate of the cost of the damage ready for the committee in the coming days.
It was not until Wednesday - nearly two days after Sandy made landfall - that information began trickling out of the United Nations. Security Council envoys told Reuters that day that they were forced to hold an urgent meeting on Somalia at a temporary structure on the U.N. campus due to flood damage.
Hurricane Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean before turning north and slamming into the U.S. East Coast a week ago with 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds and a huge storm surge. The U.S. death toll has risen to at least 113.
Danish Ambassador Carsten Staur expressed general agreement with the Algerian envoy's remarks and spoke of the United Nations' "total breakdown of communications" with the outside world. Delegates from Mexico and other states also complained about the silence from the United Nations.
"There's a great sense of frustration and that frustration has been growing," a Mexican diplomat told the committee.
German Deputy U.N. Ambassador Miguel Berger also spoke of "the limited communication between the (U.N.) secretariat and the missions on the closures Monday to Wednesday, as well as on the reopening for business on Thursday. Many missions received information only through the website for staff news."
Berger added that Germany, like other member states, had cars parked in the U.N. garage when the storm hit, which were severely damaged by the flooding.
A European Union delegate asked to know whether sensitive information-technology equipment would be moved out of the U.N. basement area to prevent future damage to key infrastructure.
Takasu told delegates at the committee meeting that Susana Malcorra, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff, would lead a "lessons-learned" assessment to identify areas where improvements in the U.N. emergency response were needed.
He added that some of the more serious damage to the United Nations would take months to repair.
Responding to the criticism, Starr told assembled delegates: "I want to assure you we hear these comments." He added that U.N. managers would look into the failure of communications after the storm hit during their "lessons-learned" process.
"These are some of the questions we are asking ourselves," he said.
Last week, Malcorra said U.N. peacekeeping, humanitarian and other operations worldwide were not affected by the impact Sandy had on United Nations headquarters in New York City.
(Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by David Brunnstrom)