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Aid begins to arrive in midst of disaster

BY JOE PAPPALARDO | NEW YORK CITY | November 11, 1998

NEW YORK CITY (Nov. 11, 1998) -- Aid workers seeking to ease the

suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch are leaping over hurdles of

confusion in their struggle to deliver assistance to Central American

victims.

"It's just chaos," said Paul Jeffrey, of the Christian Commission for

Development (CCD), who yesterday (Tuesday) received an aid package from

Church World Service. "We're never truly prepared for a disaster.

"There's not so much of a shortage of food yet as there is trouble with

transportation," Jeffery said. "Finally some roads are being opened and we

can deliver supplies by land." He added many supplies were being hauled by

mules.

Dozens of faith-based groups are working with the Red Cross and foreign

governments in assessing damage and allocate money and equipment to

people in the most need of help. Determining where and how to send aid in

the face of such a monumental disaster is proving to be a struggle.

"Many of those who died or disappeared lived at the margins of our

society, on riverbeds around the edges of industrial areas or on steep

hillsides in the countryside," said CCD Executive President Noemi Espinoza.

"They were the expendable ones about whom the government has

never been concerned," he added. "As we begin to rebuild our country, they

must be taken seriously, they must be taken into consideration. The project

of

reconstruction must focus on the people, not just the infrastructure."

"In a situation like this you tend to want to hurry and send, but it's

tricky.

You have to make sure it can be used once it gets there," said Rachel Hill,

of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington D.C. "We feel slightly helpless,

and we're trying to put all our energy into it."

Julio Enamorado, of the Honduran Consulate in New York City, said the

government was "having problems" with transportation, and was soliciting

airlines and U.S. state governments for help in shipping goods to Latin

America.

"We expect donations from the tri-state area to be delivered by the end

of the week," he said. "Then the (Honduran) government has to figure out

how to distribute the supplies. We still have no communication with some

cities."

Jeffery said that once supplies arrive, distribution is organized on the

local level. "There is no central control. Organization is de facto at a

more local level. There's been real good coordination between agencies," he

said. "We sort of divide up the turf, so that you don't have three NGO's

(non-government organizations) in one village while three (villages) nearby

have nothing."

Clean water, food and dry shelter are the immediate priorities. The

Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is distributing through

Nicaragua, 420 tons of a corn and soy blend cereal and 98 tons of

vegetable oil, enough food for 57,000 people for one month.

The population of some isolated areas are being evacuated as it becomes

clear that no help can reach them. The Honduran Air Force has been

airlifting isolated populations to centralized shelters, and several Latin

American countries have pledged donations of helicopters for the relief

effort.

Long-term strategies for dealing with the hurricane are already being

considered, even as emergency conditions must be met.

Enamorado said the permanent Honduran mission to the United Nations has

already began an agenda to keep the world informed of the conditions in

Central America.

"We plan on keep people updated. After one month nobody hears about (the

conditions) and people stop helping," he said "It will take 40 to 50 years

to rebuild. It's not a matter of one month, or six months, or even a year.

Informing the international community through TV, radio and newspapers is

the only way to keep help coming long term."

Jeffery said that once the country is past the emergency phase, CCD will

make training, materials and other support for rebuilding and possible

village and town relocation.

But just getting past the emergency phase is proving to be challenging.

CCD staff reported Tuesday that new mudslides destroyed a temporary water

system they had constructed in La Laguna -- a village that is filled with

refugees from other communities. The mudslides also closed the road between

Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, which opened just Friday.

As information arrives the amount of damage and loss of life increases.

Nicaraguan newspapers estimate preliminary losses at 7,000 dead, 12,000

disappeared, and 1.9 million homeless. In Honduras the estimated damage

is rising past $2 billion.

In Nicaragua, Ben Meyer, an associate missionary for the Christian

Reformed Church World Mission, said information is trickling in despite a

destroyed infrastructure.

"We've had representatives go try to get to these isolated villages, but no

one can get there because the bridges and roads are washed out," he said.

"When we do get through, it's by boat or by a bridge that's been repaired.

We need as much clear information as we can get, so we have a strategy

for immediate needs."

After making contact with a village, representatives get a summery of the

number of homeless, the number of buildings destroyed, and the number of

sick and injured. Many times the group uses the welfare of children as a

yard-stick for the community.

"If the children are aren't doing well, the whole family probably isn't

doing well," he said.

A nationwide shortage of potable water is impending. The Public Health

Ministry of Guatemala reported the first cases of cholera, and has

increased water-treatment efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.

International relief flights delivered the first water purification

machines and needed medicines on Friday. The American Red Cross has plans

to send

40 tons of water purification chemicals and antibiotics to Central America.

"We think three of every four wells (in Nicaragua) is contaminated. There

is widespread diarrhea and respiratory problems, said Meyer, in

Nicaragua. "People have been damp for so long we're seeing a lot of

infections and foot fungus."

According to Dr. JoAnn Butrin, director of HealthCare Ministries, four

emergency HCM medical teams have responded to the plea for help in

Nicaragua and Honduras, with two additional scheduled to assist in

Honduras.

"The medical team called to request more trained personnel and more

supplies, saying the need and the devastation are beyond description,"

Butrin said.

For outreach programs with close ties to Latin America, the disaster takes

an added dimension. Washington D.C.'s Episcopal Diocese has been involved in

building schools, clinics and orphanages in Honduras for nine years,

according to Hill.

"A lot of churches here have the same names as ones down there. People

here are broken-hearted," she said. The Diocese's strategy includes

donating from the pews and asking United States airlines to donate space

on flights to Latin America.

"We're trying to get them enough money to hold over for a few weeks.,"

she said, adding that Honduras' only Episcopalian Bishop, Leo Frade, had

established a bank account in America which eased transfer of funds to

Central America.

"We're worried that he'll run out of things to buy (due to shortages)," Hill

said. She said that within the next week the diocese would hold a strategy

meeting to plan the next move.

Church World Service (CWS) has issued an appeal of $250,000 to its

member communions to fund immediate shipments of emergency aid to

Honduras and other affected countries. Action by Churches Together has

issued an appeal for $1.3 million dollars to support the relief and recovery

efforts of Christian Commission for Development in Honduras and the

Council of Evangelical Church for Denomination Alliance in Nicaragua.

Despite exhaustion and frustration, the helping hand extended by the

world to Latin America is being felt and appreciated by care-givers and

victims alike.

"Part of what keeps us going is the response outside Honduras," said

Jeffery. The outpouring has been incredible. It's been so touching."


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