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Miami center collects supplies for survivors

BY DANIEL R. GANGLER | Miami, FL | December 22, 1999

During a steady rainfall today in Miami, pickup trucks streamed through the Venezuelan Air Force warehouse dock leaving bottled water and other non-perishable relief supplies to be shipped to flood-struck Venezuelans. The flag outside flew at half mast.

This parade of voluntary contributions has run nonstop since Friday night, Dec. 17, when the Venezuelan Air Force established the warehouse as the Venezuelan Flood Aid Center. Since many airports are still closed, and goods can be purchased within the country, officials said that monetary contributions are needed most.

Still, material contributions flow into the center. A dozen air force members unload each car or truck and put packaged items on the dock, where they are immediately wrapped in plastic and stacked up to 8 feet high on large 7-by-9-foot metal pallets.

Frank Stephen, logistics operations manager for the air force's Miami office, said the air force then transports the goods from the warehouse to a C130 Hercules transport plane. Each plane load contains six pallets of goods and weighs approximately 40,000 pounds.

The plane with two crews of seven each has been flying around-the-clock since the weekend.

Since relief efforts began, Stephen said the air force has flown 100,000 to 150,000 pounds of supplies a day from Miami International Airport to the El Libertador Air Base in Palo Negro near the disaster area.

The Miami operation is being run by the Venezuelan Air Force under the command of Brigadier General Cristobal Rodriguez, head of the air force's installation in Miami, and Venezuelan General Consul Antonio Hernandez Borgos.

"These flights have contained medication and baby food," said Stephen, who has not slept much since the shipments started. "All the goods have been donated mostly by individuals." These include bottled water, canned and dried foods. "Yesterday we flew 20,000 pounds of baby food.

"The international and local support has been tremendous," said Stephen. "We are handling individual contributions, mostly from Venezuelans living in South Florida."

He estimated that between 50,000 to 100,000 Venezuelans live in the area. Even though every pound of goods is appreciated, Stephen said that cash contributions are greatly needed.

The greatest danger during a flood is water contamination which produces life-threatening infections, said Stephen. Therefore, most of the round-the-clock shipments have been medicines and personal hygiene products such as toothpaste and feminine napkins.

Yesterday, the air force transported a Miami cable-TV crew from station WEYS, a Spanish station, who today has been broadcasting live reports from Venezuela back to the Miami area.

In addition to local contributions, Stephen said the international community has been responding to the disaster. Mexico sent 286 medical and relief workers along with a mobile clinic to take directly to people in need. Likewise, Cuba sent 20 epidemiologists and other relief workers. The American Red Cross also sent relief workers to assess the damage.

Stephen, who does not have relatives directly affected by the flooding, said this past weekend one of his crew members went with a military helicopter in an attempt to rescue stranded people in Venezuela. Shortly after they had plucked 15 survivors off of a roof, they saw a huge wave of mud knock the building down.

With a sober face, Stephen said; "The year 2000 and the new millennium is almost here. Maybe in it there is a sign to take it easy with nature with a more human relation among us."

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