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Dominican Republic facing catastrophe

BY GEORGE PIPER | DOMINICAN REPUBLIC | October 5, 1998

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (Oct. 5, 1998) -- As faith-based disaster response

organizations get reports back from assessment teams that have been in the

Dominican Republic following Hurricane Georges, the story from the already

poor island country becomes increasingly bleak.

Widespread flooding, homelessness and the disappearance of entire towns

may add to the death toll and losses already being reported. And with a

government that is already feeling its citizens' mistrust, Dominican

churches are likely to play a major role in distributing supplies and

spearheading recovery in this country of eight million people.

Gordon Knuckey, a field officer for the United Methodist Committee on

Relief (UMCOR) and one of the first stateside disaster relief members to

visit the Dominican, paints a gloomy picture in a land where suffering and

poverty already exists without help from Mother Nature. He summed up the

situation in one word: catastrophic.

"To those of us in the disaster business, that has a very distinct

meaning. That's the worst it gets," he said after his return from touring

both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. "You can't walk 10 feet (in

the Dominican) and not encounter major destruction."

Hurricane Georges hit the Dominican Republic on Sept. 22, bringing high

winds and rain that obliterated small wooden houses inhabited by many poor

residents and washed away whole communities.

Official reports put some 279 dead and another 100,000 to 185,000

homeless. The deaths reported so far represent those accounted for in

official shelters. Knuckey guesses the final figure might climb into the

thousands.

The official flew into Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, last

Wednesday with a building contractor and a translator to talk with clergy

and local citizens. The airport was still so badly damaged that the pilot

landed with the aid of hand signals on the ground. Road closures and lack

of telephone service limited travel and communication, although Knuckey

received reports from virtually the entire island.

UMCOR is working with the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana (The Dominican

Evangelical Churches, or IED), an organization of United Methodist,

Presbyterian Church USA and Moravian churches.

The group has already established 15 clinics where residents can go for

medical aid. The next priority is getting building materials for people's

homes. UMCOR already has sent which has already has sent emergency response

grants to the IED

Getting supplies to the island is the first challenge facing relief

groups. Once received, a program of equitable distribution is needed, and

that's a role Knuckey believes can be fulfilled by church groups who have

credibility among the people.

One church group expected to provide direct relief, the Servicio Social

de Iglesias Dominicanas (Social Services of Dominican Churches or SSID),

has a working agreement with the Dominican government that any supplies the

organization receives is not taxed or seized by bureaucratic officials.

In San Pedro de Macoris, the Moravian Church there is using the limited

resources of its bank account to purchase food and its youth group (dubbed

the Love Brigade) is cooking food and delivering it to citizens. Church

officials in the community of 185,000 estimate 95 percent of homes werer

destroyed or sustained major damage. The church, too, was destroyed, and

officials gave away any salvageable building material.

The Rev. Nicolas Deoleo Felix, from the southern village of Tamayo, told

Knuckey how his community of 20,000 was wiped out. The pastor escaped in

the night with his wife and children, but he still cannot account for

extended family, which he feared dead. Another southern town, Jaquimeyes,

population 10,000, was left below water after the road formed a dike

against the rising floodwaters.

In an area of the San Juan Province known as the Mesopotamian Region, 15

small communities flooded and are simply gone. Church officials estimate

about 1,000 households -- each household averages around six people -- were

affected there.

"In this situation, refugees are scattered all over and whole entire

towns have disappeared," Knuckey said.

"Right now the government is dropping food to some of these folks simply

because they just can't get in," he said.

"People are sheltering just about anywhere they can find a structure to

hide in," Knuckey said. "There does not seem to be a consistent effort to

deliver food and potable water."

Knuckey likened the images of the Dominican to Homestead, Fla., after

Hurricane Andrew. "The difference is this is much worse because they simply

don't have the resources that we as a nation have," he said.

The poor communications and infrastructure, though, have not halted

faith-based relief efforts to the beleaguered country.

Church World Service (CWS), which has issued a second $50,000 emergency

appeal in response to Hurricane Georges, has sent $15,000 in Emergency

Advance Funds to SSID for immediate relief needs, including blankets and

construction materials. This assistance will be included as part of a

broader appeal by Action by Churches Together (ACT) International.

At least 20 volunteers from Christian Disaster Response are going to the

Dominican Republic and Haiti to do on-site feeding, conduct damage

assessments and train local citizens to do disaster response work, said CDR

Director Ron Patterson.

Medical supplies, recovery kits, food and clothing are among the items

flown into the region by the group, and building materials will be shipped

out as well. "Our network across the country is busy gathering recovery

materials and supplies and shipping them to our warehouses," Patterson said.

North American Mission Board (SBC) damage response teams in the

Dominican Republic and Haiti also are expected to make a decision soon on

efforts in those countries, said Mickey Caison, NAMB national disaster

director.

Disciples of Christ sent medical supplies and cleanup kits via DOC in

the Dominican.


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