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Massive relief effort mounted in Central America

BY PJ HELLER | TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras | November 5, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Nov. 5, 1998) -- With desperate pleas for aid

continuing to grow daily from Honduras and Nicaragua, faith-based and other

relief agencies continued their nearly unprecedented efforts to funnel

dollars and donated goods to the Central American countries devastated by

Hurricane Mitch.

At the same time, governments worldwide stepped up their efforts to

provide aid to the stricken countries, where more than 10,000 people were

killed, thousands more are reported missing and feared dead and hundreds of

thousands are homeless.

The United States said Thursday it was increasing emergency aid to $70

million, including $20 million worth of food and $16.3 million in fuel, for

Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Mexico said it was sending 1,300 tons of food and 11 tons of medicine.

Japan, Argentina, Taiwan and European countries all said they were sending

in relief supplies.

Meantime, as rescuers continued their work, often finding more bodies

that were swept away by floods and mudslides, there were growing fears of

outbreaks of malaria, cholera, hepatitis and other diseases. Food and water

remained in short supply or were non-existent in isolated rural areas.

"Desperation, hunger, diarrhea, and the pestilence of cholera in some

parts has arrived," said Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman as he again

pleaded for more assistance for his ravaged country.

Faith-based organizations in the U.S. said they have been deluged with

calls offering help.

"The phones for the last three days have been ringing off the hook,

every line at once," said Beverly Bartlett, a consultant with the United

Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

"It's been a great response," she said. "Its wonderful. It's making life

extremely busy but it's great. People are really responding. We've had a

lot of people calling wanting to give donations."

Beth Schaefer of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)

reported a similar response.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook," she said. "A lot of people

are very interested in helping."

Although UMCOR was sending planeloads of food and medical supplies and

medicines to Nicaragua and a ship filled with food for Honduras, it was not

accepting individual donations of food, clothing or other relief supplies.

The reason was because of the difficulty in distributing the goods in

countries whose infrastructures have been almost completely destroyed,

Bartlett said.

"At this point we can't accept material resources," she said. "We're

asking for financial contributions. It's the most effective way (to help

people)."

She said the donations policy will be reviewed once UMCOR assessment

teams return from Central America and plans are in place to distribute

donated goods.

ADRA said the only material goods it was accepting were new clothes and

new blankets.

"We're encouraging people to give monetary donations," Schaefer said.

"It's much easier and quicker to process. We can send the money directly to

our Honduran and Nicaraguan offices and they can buy things in neighboring

countries."

Dozens of other relief agencies and countless individuals and groups

were collecting donations of cash and goods to be sent to Central America.

Among the priority items requested is canned food with a long shelf life

and which does not require cooking, medicine and drinking water. Other

requested items included beans, rice, sugar, soap, diapers, flashlights and

tarps and tents.

Church World Service said it is organizing an air shipment that will

include tents, rice, beans, powdered milk and health and layette kits.

The American Friends Service Committee is asking people to donate

"recovery kits" consisting of two bars of soap, six candles, two cloth

diapers and pins and an article of infant clothing, all packed in a

sealable plastic bag no larger than 12 inches by 12 inches.

One of the first shipments of food, clothing and medicine that arrived

earlier this week in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa had been collected

by the Honduran consulate in Texas. Honduran consulates elsewhere in the

U.S. were mounting similar drives.

Officials in Central America, meantime, continued to count the dead,

although they admitted that they may never know the actual number of those

killed.

Nicaragua said the death toll had climbed to 4,000 as more bodies were

found from the massive mudslide that buried entire villages at the foot of

the Casita volcano. In Honduras, government officials said the death toll

stood at more than 6,000. One news service quoted a government official as

saying the number of missing had been revised downward from 11,000 to about

4,600 but other reports continued to report the number of missing at 10,000

or more. Officials also revised the number of homeless from 1 million to

about 569.000.

El Salvador's reported 239 dead and 135 missing. Guatemala said it had

194 dead and an unknown number of people missing. At least five people were

reported killed in Mexico and at least seven in Costa Rica.

In announcing the stepped up U.S. aid, President Clinton announced he

was sending a delegation headed by Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al

Gore, to Central America. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to

visit Nicaragua and Honduras in mid-November, as well as Haiti and the

Dominican Republic.


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