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Faith groups help as Asian needs intensify

Response organizations worldwide are mobilizing after one of the biggest natural disasters in recent history.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | December 26, 2004

Response organizations worldwide are mobilizing after one of the biggest natural disasters in recent history.

In the wake of a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 20-foot tidal waves that struck over the weekend, killing thousands across southern Asia, faith-based groups - including Church World Service's Emergency Response Program (CWS/ERP) and Action by Churches Together (ACT) - are poised to help thousands of survivors.

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake - followed by other temblors - struck 100 miles off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra Island.

Then huge tidal waves swept across the Indian Ocean, deluging the coasts of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia and the Maldives.

At least 20,000 people were dead by Monday morning, and the toll was expected to rise. Thousands of people were missing.

Responders were trying to get a general idea of the hardest-hit areas.

The northern Sumatra region of Indonesia - in Aceh, which was 100 miles from the quake's epicenter - reported at least 4,000 people dead. The island of Nias was also hard-hit.

In Sri Lanka, more than 10,000 people were killed. Several districts in Sri Lanka had not yet reported casualty figures as of Sunday evening.

At least 2,300 people in India perished.

Several villages along India's southeastern coast were swept away.

More than half a million people are homeless, and the full impact of the disaster was not yet known, since communications were down in the hardest-hit areas.

CWS reported it would be undertaking a regional response that focuses initially on Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India.

In Indonesia, CWS staff are assessing needs and planning an emergency response in coordination with ACT members Yayasan Tanggul Benkana (YTB) and Yakkum Emergency Unit/CD Bethesda (YEU). CWS will deploy a rapid assessment mission to Aceh this week, working with a team from YEU. YTB reports that figures received from Aceh province puts those displaced at some 150,000 people. YEU will also be sending an assessment team to North Sumatra.

In Sri Lanka, CWS plans to deploy an emergency assistance team from its regional office in Pakistan/Afghanistan. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL) - a CWS partner - was already offering an emergency response. The NCCSL reported that two truckloads of food and water would leave on Monday for Muttur in Trincomalee and to Thirukovil in Batticaloa, two of the worst-hit areas.

In India, CWS's partner Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) will work with the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India to assess emergency needs.

CASA reported that 12 teams have been deployed to assess needs of people in coastal areas and offer relief. Four operational points are being set up: two in Tamil Nadu at Trichy and Drinamvenny, one in Andhra Pradesh, and another one in Kerala to assist some 50,000 families.

CWS has issued an initial appeal for funds to support its response, which may expand as additional needs are clarified.

CWS is a member of ACT - a global alliance of churches and related agencies responding to emergencies worldwide.

Leaders of NCCSL - also an ACT member - reported that the tragedy had affected millions. "I can't describe the disaster that has hit Sri Lanka very unexpectedly and has thrown millions of lives into complete disarray," wrote S.K. Xavier, an NCCSL emergency officer.

As he traversed a Sri Lankan highway on Sunday, he wrote, "people are there in utter panic. Pockets of crowds are gathered around those affected by this event, and listening to the stories of those relating to the horror experienced. They are utterly frightened. In many cases there is a serious lack of medicines."

The earthquake that caused the tsunami was the largest since a 9.2-magnitude quake hit Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1964, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The world's worst tsunami in recent history struck July 17, 1998, reported ACT, when three waves inundated Papua New Guinea's northwest coast, killing 2,500.

ACT was expected to issue a financial appeal this week.

Meanwhile, two moderate earthquakes rocked the Philippines but no damage or injuries were reported, seismologists said. The two earthquakes were not powerful enough to cause tsunamis and were not linked to the undersea Asian earthquake.

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