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DR recovery begins to help citizens

BY SUSAN KIM | DOMINICAN REPUBLIC | March 19, 1999

Though there are lingering unknowns

about Hurricane Georges and the Dominican Republic -- the

final death toll, the number of homes damaged, the actual

amount of infrastructure and agriculture destroyed, and

the long-term impact of trauma on people -- the island is

making definite, if slow, progress in recovering.

Last September, Hurricane Georges lashed the nation,

that shares a border with Haiti and is located due west

of Puerto Rico. Some 500 people died, and as many as

400,000 were left homeless. Much of the country's yucca,

plantain, rice, sugar cane, coffee, and corn crops were

completely flooded. Massive downed electrical lines,

broken water lines, and recurring mudslides challenged

immediate relief efforts.

In spite of such inestimable and widespread devastation,

the country is recovering. From employing local

volunteers, to coordinating international work teams and

missionaries, to hosting an international conference on

disaster preparedness last month, the Dominican Republic

is taking steps to restore people's lives and make their

future safer.

The largest challenges facing the nation are finding ways to restore the

multitudes

of lost or damaged homes, guarding against infectious

disease caused by contaminated water, and ensuring a

secure food and medicine supply. Flooded crops have

caused a delay in annual harvests -- the sugar cane

harvest is already two months late -- that is disrupting

the nation's food availability.

The Christian Reformed

World Relief Committee (CRWRC) has launched a "Food For

Work" initiative in which residents work one day a week

within their community in exchange for a supply of food.

Community projects include repairing roads, digging or

cleaning sewage ditches, cleaning up debris, fumigating

for insects, covering latrines, and cleaning cemeteries.

CRWRC coordinated food donations of wheat, cornmeal, oil,

and beans with the Canada Foodgrains Bank, a consortium

supported by more than a dozen denominations. Even when

leading a highly successful initiative like Food For

Work, there are still lessons to be learned, said Bev

Abma, CRWRC disaster response administrator. "We learned

that bulghar wheat would have cooked up more quickly than

the whole wheat we sent," she said.

Reestablishing a secure food supply is usually a

short-term challenge after a disaster, but in the

Dominican Republic the damage to agriculture was so

intense that food issues will remain a key aspect of

long-term recovery.

"A large population of people will

have very little income until the next crop is ready,"

said Wayne Westhoff, associate director for the Center

for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance at

the University of South Florida. "Prices of basic staples

have more than doubled."

Efforts by local and international faith-based and

nonprofit groups to help teach water purification

techniques showed fairly good results after the storm.

"There was less disease than expected because, when the

windmills blew down, people already knew how to pump

clean water," said Abma.

Though some post-disaster studies indicate a need for

better national coordination of some relief efforts, the

Dominican Republic government acted quickly to avert the

threat of an epidemic, said Larry Powell, an international

catastrophic disaster consultant for the United Methodist

Committee on Relief. "But the long-term medicine supply -

just like the food supply - will continue to pose a

problem," he said.

The badly eroded economy doesn't mean the nation can't

rebuild, said Abma. "You can't get everyone into a

palace, but as people rebuild, they are asking themselves

'how can I be less vulnerable next time?' Sometimes small

changes make a difference. For example, those who tied

down their roofs with nylon rope had less damage, as did

those who put cement on the edge of tin or metal roofs to

prevent the wind from catching under the edge and ripping

the roof off," she said.

The Dominican Republic also helped advance international

knowledge about disaster preparedness by hosting a

conference last month that brought together 375 experts from 20 countries

to discuss lessons learned from Hurricanes Georges and

Mitch. The delegation issued a series of recommendations

on a variety of topics, including early warning,

assessment of needs, water and sanitation, medical care,

psychological aspects, communicable diseases, management

of supplies, and information management.

Information dissemination, especially Internet-based

information, plays a key role in both early warning and

response, the delegates found. The speed of the Internet

was used substantially to issue early warnings for both

Hurricane Georges and Hurricane Mitch. But the same rapid

information distribution channels may also contribute to

the proliferation of under-researched inaccuracies and

unsubstantiated rumors.

In the case of the Dominican Republic, rumors were less

widespread because information wasn't widespread. General

media coverage about the nation was eclipsed by coverage

of Puerto Rico, then later the Honduras and Nicaragua.

Westhoff identified the extent of media coverage as

"perhaps the biggest difference" between Hurricane

Georges in the Dominican Republic and Hurricane Mitch in

Central America. "Less media coverage relates to less

recovery dollars," he said.

"In this age of information," Powell concurred, "we can

really zero in on a problem and communicate the need. But

if you wait two or three weeks to get into the loop, it

makes it that much more difficult because funding and

people's energy have already gone elsewhere," he said.

But a study by David A. McEntire from the Graduate School

of International Studies at the University of Denver,

found that the media was not to blame for most of the

inaccurate information before, during, and after the

disaster in the Dominican Republic. Instead, individuals

involved in disaster response efforts and disaster

survivors said that the government was largely

responsible for the lack of disaster information.

According to the study, "Even while the storm was raging,

the government radio station was playing music and

discussing recipes. And, officials may not have

adequately warned the people downstream before opening

the flood gates of the Sabaneta Dam which contributed to

the deaths of numerous individuals in the city of

Mesopotamia," the study said.

Powell, who has been to the Dominican Republic several

times and is going back this week, said that he has no

doubt that the nation will eventually recover. "What I

see is people who have been hit by a tremendous tragedy

but still manage to maintain balance in their lives," he

said. "The personality of this country and the very

character of this country will ensure long-term

recovery."


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