Needs acute in Mexico

BY SUSAN KIM | SILVER SPRING, Md. | October 21, 1999

SILVER SPRING, Md. (Oct. 21, 1999) -- After continuous flooding and

fatal mudslides, thousands of people in Mexico are homeless and


U.S.-based relief agencies trying to respond are challenged by the

acuteness of the need, as well as by the logistical difficulty of

coordinating with the Mexican government.

The Maryland-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is

among faith-based organizations responding to people's needs in


ADRA has launched a large-scale emergency food relief effort, to date

providing more than 25,000 people in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz,

and Tabasco with food parcels containing basic grains. ADRA is also

operating 12 kitchens and providing three hot meals a day to as many

as 2,000 affected residents in north Veracruz.

ADRA also plans to add north Puebla -- where more than 10,000 people

were affected by the flooding -- to its relief efforts, said Rafael

Garcia, ADRA Mexico director.

"Most of the flooding stems from rivers in the affected states," he

said. "Rivers in Tabasco alone reached historical levels. Many

families are risking their health and living in their muddy homes, or

have been forced to sleep on sidewalks, in the street, or improvising

shelter with pieces of cloth or other material."

Wally Amundson, ADRA's regional vice president for the Inter-American

region, is currently visiting hard-hit areas. "As I was flying into

the airport, I saw hundreds of miles of land under water," he said.

"People have had to suffer through two extremes this year: first

drought, and now flooding. There is no doubt that there will be

negative affects on the harvest, and the storm season still hasn't

completely passed."

Response leaders agreed that long-term food security - which has been

an ongoing concern in Mexico - will become even more of a challenge

in the wake of the recent disasters.

Lloyd Rollins, executive director of the Annandale, Va.-based Foods

Resource Bank, said disasters have a major impact on food security.

"This recent flooding will only exacerbate that," he said.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has assessment teams in

Mexico, and is also distributing relief supplies, as is the Christian

Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).

The International Red Cross has also been responding to emergency needs.

Coordinating efforts with the Mexican government presents a

challenge, said Jacob Kramer, a relief team member with CRWRC.

"This country has a long tradition of a paternalistic approach by

politicians. It's a philosophy that's not likely to change," he said.

That means that relief organizations often have to go through an

array of paperwork and bureaucracy in order to get supplies to those

in need. Organizations with local partners in Mexico seem to be able

to respond more quickly.

Some unhesitatingly blame the Mexican government for not only

blocking response but also for putting disaster survivors in danger

in the first place.

"The Mexican government doesn't want any help," said the Rev. John

Feierabend, pastor at the Grace Lutheran Church in Del Rio, Tex.,

just a few miles from the Mexican border. "This latest set of storms

will drive even more people to try to leave and assume a new life


Trying to get supplies to those in need is sometimes impossible, he

added. "You have to go through so many border checkpoints. The

government has so many fears that people are going to take advantage.

But the government allowed people to build homes in flood plains and

on hillsides denuded of trees."

A pronounced need for better housing existed long before this latest

disaster, agreed the Rev. Gary Martin, pastor at Iglesia Luterana

Cristo el Salvador, who coordinates response from Del Rio with a

partner church in Mexico.

Youth groups from Martin's church and others traveled to Mexico this

summer to build 12-by-16-foot homes to replace cardboard houses that

become virtually flattened when flooded.

"Maybe the (recent) flood prompted people to see those needs," he

said. "But they existed before."

Currently Martin is coordinating response to what he calls an

"extreme need" for food. "But you have to take the food over family

by family," he said. "We don't even try to get permission anymore to

take even a pick-up truckload over because of the bridge officials."

The heavy rainfall, which caused the Grijalva and Carrizal rivers to

burst their banks, also caused small creeks to become raging

torrents. Mudslides buried thousands of people, especially in the

rugged mountains about 100 miles northeast of Mexico City. More rain

is forecast for Mexico's eastern coastal state of Veracruz, parts of

which have been devastated by the country's worst floods in 40 years.

Residents dug furiously through the mud for loves ones, and, for

days, roads to remote areas were blocked by mudslides. Emergency

response vehicles and supplies are now getting through. As whole

neighborhoods are unearthed, the scope of the disaster is just now

coming to light.

The torrential rainfall was caused by tropical depressions that hung

over Mexico. Nearly 300,000 people are still homeless in the states

of Puebla, Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, and Hidalgo. The death count is

still rising as victims are unearthed from the mud.

Posted October 21, 1999

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