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India quake sees emergency response

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | January 26, 2001

Response agencies mobilized quickly after a powerful earthquake today in western India buried more than 1,000 people and caused widespread structural collapse.

The earthquake measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and more than 1,000 are feared dead. Rescue workers are furiously digging through the rubble, especially in Ahmedabad, where hospitals are overflowing with injured people.

Collapsed homes, shattered bridges and mangled buildings lie in tangled piles, and some residents are digging for loved ones with their bare hands. "The death toll just keeps going up and up," said Jonathan Frerichs, spokesperson for Lutheran World Relief (LWR).

There are also mine cave-ins, train derailments and broken water pipes, according to reports from Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global alliance of churches and related agencies that coordinate emergency response.

Ahmedabad, capital of the state of Gujarat, likely suffered the highest number of deaths, according to government reports. Ahmedabad, population 5 million, is home to one of India's largest gold markets and is an oilseed trading center, as well as a production site for textiles and chemicals. At least 100 buildings have collapsed across Gujarat, according to ACT reports, with many others sustaining cracks or other major damage. Residents there reported that the tremors lasted 45 seconds and began just before 9 a.m. there.

Officials are still trying to access remote areas of the state to determine death tolls and damages. Many residents are spending the night outdoors where nights have been cool but not cold.

The last time Gujarat suffered a quake of this intensity was in 1819.

In the coastal town of Bhuj, a five-story building collapsed, killing 150 people.

Phone and power lines were still down on Friday afternoon. India's government emergency response has been activated as has the military.

ACT has contacted Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) and other ACT partners working in the area to try to get additional information about the earthquake damages and the needs of survivors. Both CASA and Church World Service (CWS), working with local protestant and catholic churches as well as the YMCA, are preparing to provide shelter, food, water and other relief items. Many relief teams cannot access the hardest-hit areas yet because rubble is blocking the way. Fire fighters are using chainsaws and drills to reach survivors trapped in the rubble. On Friday, many residents were still waiting for help to arrive.

LWR is sending a $25,000 in emergency funds to CASA, and is sending two teams that will purchase supplies and food for locally for survivors. The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is also working with CASA, according to MCC spokesperson Dave Worth.

CWS is planning to issue a financial appeal to help quake survivors and will issue a situation report covering both India and Pakistan on Friday, reported Donna Derr, associate director for international emergency response.

ACT reported that it will most likely issue an appeal as well.

Relief groups are urging individuals who want to help to send cash donations not material goods since most supplies can be purchased locally.

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which operates programs in India, has dispatched local staff to gather information about priority needs, said Norma Sahlin, ADRA spokesperson. "We are jumping into action."

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has committed an initial emergency allocation of $50,000 to assist survivors, as well as additional funding as needed in Pakistan. "CRS is working with local partners in the affected areas to assess the critical needs," CRS spokesperson Joe Carney.

International Aid may send a shipment of blankets, according to spokesperson Jerry Dykstra.

AmeriCares is also responding with a representative en route to Ahmedabad to collaborate with local emergency authorities. Many survivors are in desperate need of medical attention, AmeriCares reported.

World Vision aid workers are traveling to communities to bring medical supplies and food, and to assess damages.

Today's earthquake was the most intense to hit India in half a century. Its epicenter was about 13 miles northeast of Bhuj in the sparsely populated Rann of Kutch, which lies on the border with Pakistan. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the quake had a magnitude of 7.9 while official Indian estimates indicate it was 6.9.

The quake sent tremors as far north as Nepal and as far south as Madras.

Eighteen aftershocks were recorded Friday, and are expected to continue, but their strength has been declining. The quake hit as India was celebrating Republic Day, a national holiday that marks the anniversary of its transition to a republic in 1950. Many residents were making preparations for celebrations as the quake struck.

The U.S. Earthquake Engineering Research Institute will likely send teams of engineers, planners and scientists to the quake site to evaluate damages, said Marjorie Greene. The institute operates a program, funded by the National Science Foundation, called "Learning from Earthquakes" in which U.S.-based teams travel to earthquake sites to study possible mitigation techniques for the future.

The last major earthquake to hit India was in March 1999. Measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, it killed 100 people and injured 300 others in the Himalayan foothills.

In Pakistan, officials reported that Friday's quake killed four people, including an infant and an 8-year-old child. CWS is assessing the needs there and is in contact with its local partners in the field, such as Lowoer Sind Rural Development Association and Caritas.

Many of the groups responding in India are also responding in El Salvador, where a Jan. 13 earthquake killed at least 700 and left thousands homeless.

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