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THANK FELIX FOR OPENING THIS DOOR

There's nothing like hurricane season for creating opportunities to rebuild international relations.

When a U.S. task force arrived on Nicaragua's hurricane-flattened east coast this week, they received a surprise welcome at a remote airstrip from that country's president, Daniel Ortega.

''We are greeting all those who have come to help," Ortega said. "We want to recognize what they have done. We thank the American people for this help."

Rewind a few months and you may recall that the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua was pulling out all the stops to prevent Ortega from being elected president. Washington was having flashbacks to the 1980s, when the Reagan administration launched a covert war against the Soviet-backed Sandinista government - led by Ortega.

Ortega is singing a different tune these days and wants to be seen as more moderate. But he's also being wooed by Latin America's revolutionary camp: Cuba and Venezuela.

The United States has historically responded generously to neighboring countries hit by natural disasters, on top of the storm-tracking information provided by the National Hurricane Center. But it doesn't get much credit.

Lately, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been winning widespread praise for sharing some of his country's vast oil resources to fund humanitarian projects in Latin America. Cuba has won credit for sending its well-trained doctors to poor countries in Latin America and Africa.

Cuba and Venezuela were quick to offer their support to Ortega this week when Hurricane Felix, a monstrous Category 5 storm, slammed Nicaragua's remote east coast Tuesday, killing at least 60 people.

But, this time the U.S. response left them in the dust.

In fact, U.S. officials say, the American response was already on the move before Felix hit. Before hurricane season, U.S. aid officials say they had prepositioned about $45,000 in emergency relief supplies such as hygiene kits and kitchen sets with the Nicaraguan Red Cross. In addition, the State Department had $1.5-million of emergency relief supplies ready to go in Miami.

"These supplies are now being utilized in the affected areas," said State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke.

So on Tuesday, when Ortega declared a state of disaster and sought international assistance, the United States was ahead of the game.

The Miami-based U.S. Southern Command also diverted a Navy amphibious assault ship, the USS Wasp, from an international maritime exercise off Panama. The Wasp has medical facilities that can treat 600 casualties, including emergency operating rooms, X-ray rooms and even a blood bank.

One of Ortega's most urgent needs was logistical support and air transport to help measure the scale of the disaster and move relief supplies on the remote Miskito Coast, which has no road link to the rest of the country.

The Pentagon quickly dispatched a Chinook military helicopter from Honduras, carrying a 14-member U.S. task force.

International disaster relief should not be a political competition between rival ideologies. But it is often a race against time. Getting there first doesn't hurt.

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report. David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com.

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