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Millions are still in need in India

BY SUSAN KIM | Orissa, India | December 3, 1999

Two cyclones that hit India in late October -- the second, called the largest to ever strike this state -- have left millions of people in an ongoing state of dire need.

The second cyclone killed some 10,000 people, and caused an estimated $3.5 billion in damages, and left 2.5 million people homeless. It destroyed 400,000 head of livestock, and thousands of acres of farmland. It wiped out almost all the rice paddy fields and submerged much of eastern Orissa under several feet of water.

An estimated 15 million people have been adversely affected by the disaster. More than 11 thousand schools alone were destroyed or heavily damaged. But getting relief supplies to those in need is still difficult because so many roads remain washed out or blocked by debris.

The second cyclone -- termed a "super-cyclone" by forecasters -- caught most people by surprise when it struck on Oct. 29. Even though Orissa is pummeled by cyclones every year, the devastation from this storm was unprecedented.

Many are still dazed by their loss of loved ones and of property, and thousands are still in need of food, water, medical supplies, sanitation materials, blankets, and plastic sheeting for huts left heavily damaged or destroyed. The Indian government reported it was able to buy only one-fifth of the plastic sheets people need to cover their homes.

Starvation and disease epidemics, including cholera, have swept into villages, many of which are still without fuel or electricity, and looting is widespread as supplies continue to run short and food prices have risen more than 300 percent.

The state government in eastern India temporarily suspended its chief of relief efforts Saturday after widespread complaints of poor or nonexistent relief following the disaster. The government will hold a formal inquiry into the allegations and if the relief commissioner, D.N. Padhi, is found guilty, he will likely be asked to resign.

Action by Churches Together (ACT) and its partners have been responding to the serious needs, and ACT spokesperson Dominic Nutt said that the situation is beyond description.

"On the edge of once fertile rice fields cling the remains of mud and straw homes," he said. "Groups of tearful, desperate victims scrap over the meager grains of rice spilled from aid lorries on their way to the towns."

"And the long-term problems are awesome. It will take months to restore electricity and other services. Water contamination will bring disease. Farm land will take years to bring back to production. Homes, schools, and hospitals must be rebuilt."

World Vision is also responding to needs, especially in the hardest-hit state of Orissa. There, World Vision workers have been distributing relief kits in remote areas. The kits contain 22 pounds of rice, 6.6 pounds of lentils, towels, and bed sheets.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) announced it is committing an additional $1 million for relief efforts through a grant awarded to CRS by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The grant will be used to prepare three-month packages for 30,000 families.

The packages include household cooking utensils, plastic roofing sheets, simple tools, and vegetable seeds for kitchen gardens.

"The devastation and loss inflicted by these storms has brought untold suffering to the people of Orissa," said Will Lynch, CRS Zonal Director in Delhi, India.

The grant will allows CRS to help people restart their lives and take their first steps toward self-sufficiency, he added.

Immediately after the disaster struck, CRS committed $300,000 to relief efforts, working with Caritas India and the Catholic Mission in Bhubaneshwar to deliver medicine and vitamins, tarps, ready-to-eat foods, and blankets to more than 230,000 cyclone survivors.

Additional materials to be delivered to Orissa include candles, lanterns, stoves, and water purification tablets.

CRS, which has been working in India for more than 50 years, is also coordinating with local partners to develop a longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction program in Orissa. The agency has a total of five offices in the country, located in Delhi, Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Mumbai.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is also collaborating with local partners to provide short and long-term relief.

Response leaders report that the best way to help is to make a cash contribution to a relief organization that is responding.

Though the devastation in India is extreme, many relief officials have expressed concern that the disaster has received comparatively little press coverage in comparison to other international and U.S. disasters.

"There are so many 'big' disasters happening in the world, it is easy for some to fall through the cracks," said Johnny Wray, who coordinates a Week of Compassion giving program through the Christian Church (Disciple of Christ).

"It does bother me that the ones that do fall through the cracks are not the ones in Europe or the U.S.," he added.

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