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Iran faces years of recovery

Earthquake-stricken Iran will face years of rehabilitation and recovery, said humanitarian leaders who are already eyeing the long term.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | December 29, 2003

Earthquake-stricken Iran will face years of rehabilitation and recovery, said humanitarian leaders who are already eyeing the long term.

The world has been following news of staggering loss of life in the wake of Friday's 6.6 quake in southeast Iran more than 25,000 people were confirmed dead by Monday and up to 40,000 are feared to have perished. Small miracles have dramatically unfolded as well a girl was pulled alive from the rubble just as rescuers' hopes faded on Monday.

But while the emergency phase of this disaster may ignite people's compassion, they will also need to remember Iran's needs a year or more from now, said Rick Augsburger, director of the Church World Service emergency response program.

"Now is a good time for people to realize they need to look at the long-term," he said. "We often don't convey that message soon enough."

The best way to help is by making a cash donation to a responding group now and in the future, agreed humanitarian leaders.

"Frankly, money is the best thing at the moment," said Linda Beher, spokesperson for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

UMCOR is sending two international field specialists to Bam the ancient city that bore the brunt of the quake damage in the next few days. They will assess needs for both immediate aid and also long-term construction, said Beher.

International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) is also looking at both emergency relief and long-term reconstruction, said IOCC spokesperson Steve Huba. "Right now we are concentrating on the procurement of blankets, stoves, tents, food and fresh water," he said, "and we are also looking down the road for ways to be involved in long-term reconstruction and development."

Huba agreed that cash donations are the best way to help. "We don't accept in-kind donations," he explained.

Lutheran World Relief (LWR) President Kathryn Wolford also stressed the importance of giving money and not items. "Cash is by far the most versatile tool right now, in terms of helping survivors," she said. "Even with LWR quilts and blankets and other supplies in warehouses in the region, it will take weeks to get these things to where they're needed. Cash allows for local or nearby purchase of tents, water tanks and medicines that the survivors so desperately need."

Coordination between responding groups will be streamlined because of relationships formed in previous earthquake response in Iran, particularly after a severe quake that struck in early 1998.

Iran is prone to quakes. Prior to this most recent temblor, since 1991 nearly 1,000 earthquakes have claimed some 17,600 lives and injured 53,000 people in Iran. At least 10,000 people are believed to be injured from the most recent quake.

Back in 1998, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) together conducted what Augsburger described as a "very organized and well-carried out response."

UMCOR leaders added that they plan to draw on their organization's experience responding to earthquakes in Turkey and El Salvador. Replacement shelter has been a specialty of the agency in its work throughout Afghanistan, Turkey and the former republic of Yugoslavia, said Paul Dirdak, UMCOR's chief executive.

Many humanitarian groups now responding to emergency needs are working with the Iranian Red Crescent Society. "The Iranian Red Crescent has tremendous capacity," said Augsburger.

Many faith-based responders are also working closely with the Middle East Council of Churches, United Nations and International Red Cross. Those groups and a "multitude of NGOs have participated in response in the past," said Augsburger, and that track record will be of significant help, he said, though "coordination is always a concern."

CWS and other groups are also working with Action by Churches Together, a global coalition of relief and response agencies.

The United Nations (UN) has dispatched two UN disaster assistance teams that will lead the coordination and process of NGO response.

Currently access to the most stricken city, Bam, and its surrounding areas is very limited as humanitarian groups try to get emergency supplies into the area.

Though security is a concern for U.S.-based humanitarian personnel the U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic relations having UN coordination will help alleviate at least some security concerns for humanitarian workers.

"We acknowledge that we live in a different world for many reasons," said Augsburger. "But we don't expect security to be as great a concern as it is in, say, Iraq. Because this is a purely humanitarian operation, and it is not combined with war."

Temporary tent camps are being set up to house tens of thousands of displaced people and currently "the biggest challenge is making sure relief supplies are distributed in an equitable and efficient manner," said Augsburger. "The airport in Bam is completely jammed."

Responders are aiming to pass from the emergency phase of the disaster into the recovery phase as quickly as possible. There were fears of cholera and diphtheria epidemics due to rupture of water sanitation facilities.

Two aftershocks hit Bam early Monday morning, toppling some of the few walls still standing in the city. Many of the city's mud-brick houses, constructed without supporting metal or wooden beams, were toppled by the quake.

In Bam, approximately 70 percent of the mud structures were destroyed according to Catholic Relief Services, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Tents and blankets are in short supply in the city, with near-freezing nighttime temperatures reported.

Both hospitals in Bam were destroyed as well, according to LWR.

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