Getting accurate info is challenge


WASHINGTON (Nov. 9, 1998) -- Aid workers seeking to ease the suffering

in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch are battling time, frustration and lack

of information in their struggle to deliver assistance to Central American


"In a situation like this you tend to want to hurry and send, but it's

tricky. You have to make sure it can be used once it gets there," said

Rachel Hill, of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington D.C. "We feel slightly

helpless, and we're trying to put all our energy into it."

Dozens of faith-based groups are working with the Red Cross and foreign

governments in assessing damage and allocate money and equipment to people

in the most need of help. Determining where to send aid in the face of such

a monumental disaster is proving to be a struggle.

In Nicaragua, Ben Meyer, an associate missionary for the Christian

Reformed Church World Mission, said information is trickling in despite a

destroyed infrastructure.

"We've had representatives go try to get to these isolated villages, but

no one can get there because the bridges and roads are washed out," he

said. "When we do get through, it's by boat or by a bridge that's been

repaired. We need as much clear information as we can get, so we have a

strategy for immediate needs."

After making contact with a village, representatives get a summery of

the number of homeless, the number of buildings destroyed, and the number

of sick and injured. Many times the group uses the welfare of children as a

yard-stick for the community.

"If the children are aren't doing well, the whole family probably isn't

doing well," he said.

Clean water, food and dry shelter are the immediate priorities. The

Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is distributing through

Nicaragua, 420 tons of a corn and soy blend cereal and 98 tons of vegetable

oil, enough food for 57,000 people for one month.

The population of some isolated areas are being evacuated as it becomes

clear that no help can reach them. The Honduran Air Force has been

airlifting isolated populations to centralized shelters, and several Latin

American countries have pledged donations of helicopters for the relief


The U.S. Navy said its Mobile Construction Battalion Seven was ordered

Friday to leave its station in Puerto Rico and head to Honduras to help the

rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure.

As information arrives the amount of damage and loss of life increases.

Nicaraguan newspapers estimate preliminary losses at 7,000 dead, 12,000

disappeared, and 1.9 million homeless. In Honduras the estimated damage is

rising past $2 billion.

A nationwide shortage of potable water is impending. The Public Health

Ministry of Guatemala reported the first cases of cholera, and has

increased water-treatment efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.

International relief flights delivered the first water purification

machines and needed medicines on Friday. The American Red Cross has plans

to send 40 tons of water purification chemicals and antibiotics to Central


"We think three of every four wells (in Nicaragua) is contaminated.

There is widespread diarrhea and respiratory problems, said Meyer, in

Nicaragua. "People have been damp for so long we're seeing a lot of

infections and foot fungus."

According to Dr. JoAnn Butrin, director of HealthCare Ministries, four

emergency HCM medical teams have responded to the plea for help in

Nicaragua and Honduras, with two additional scheduled to assist in Honduras.

"The medical team called to request more trained personnel and more

supplies, saying the need and the devastation are beyond description,"

Butrin said.

For outreach programs with close ties to Latin America, the disaster

takes an added dimension. Washington D.C.'s Diocese has been involved in

building schools, clinics and orphanages in Honduras for nine years,

according to Hill.

A lot of churches here have the same names as ones down there. People

here are broken-hearted," she said. The Diocese's strategy includes

donating from the pews and asking United States airlines to donate space on

flights to Latin America.

"We're trying to get them enough money to hold over for a few weeks.,"

she said, adding that Honduras' only Episcopalian Bishop, Leo Frade, had

established a bank account in America which eased transfer of funds to

Central America.

"We're worried that he'll run out of things to buy (due to shortages),"

Hill said. She said that within the next week the diocese would hold a

strategy meeting to plan the next move.

Church World Service (CWS) has issued an appeal of $250,000 to its

member communions to fund immediate shipments of emergency aid to Honduras

and other affected countries. Action by Churches Together has issued an

appeal for $1.3 million dollars to support the reliefand recovery efforts

of Christian Commission for Development in Honduras and the Council of

Evangelical Church for Denomination Alliance in Nicaragua.

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