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Little attention but growing needs in Mexico

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 29, 1999

BALTIMORE (Oct. 29, 1999) -- Amid disasters widely covered by the

press -- such as flooding in North Carolina and earthquakes in Taiwan

-- severe flooding in Mexico has been less visible in the media. But

response there is solidifying nonetheless -- and U.S.-based

organizations are lending a hand.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is among many faith-based relief

agencies responding to the floods, which were triggered by a week of

rain from a tropical depression that hung over the region for an

inordinately long time. More than 400 people died, most buried in

severe mudslides, and thousands are still homeless.

The death toll could still rise as more bodies are unearthed, and

this week a new surge of floodwater in the devastated state of Tabasco

killed six more people.

Authorities reported they were forced to open the gates on Saturday

morning to a dam in the state of Chiapas on Saturday morning, causing

already crested rivers to rise even higher. Several towns are still threatened by the dam release, and rainfall from Tropical Storm Irene further aggravated the situation.

The most recent deaths occurred just as emergency response officials

were telling residents that the disaster, called the worst flooding

the area has had in 40 years, was over.

Soldiers evacuated thousands of residents as water engulfed the communities. In Villahermosa, where residents were waist-deep in water, prisoners staged a riot in an attempt to take control of their flooded


In the town of Teziutlan, a unusable bridge weakened by floodwaters

cut the community in half, slowing textile production to a trickle.

Teziutlan exports clothing each week to the United States for sale

in stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, and J.C. Penney.

Many areas are still under water or bogged in mud. Persistent rain is

still preventing helicopters from delivering aid. Residents are being

forced to walk long distances for food and emergency relief supplies,

many communication lines are still down, and makeshift bridges of

planking dot the landscape.

"The affected areas along Mexico's Gulf Coast were already among the

poorer regions of the country," said Kenneth Hackett, CRS executive

director. "Families lost everything in a matter of moments."

After vivid media portrayals of disasters such as flooding in North

Carolina, "we in the U.S. have a better appreciation of the kind of

devastation caused by intense flooding and more compassion for the

victims of such natural disasters," he added.

While CRS and many other U.S.-based groups are responding by

collecting funds and sending assessment teams, organizations that

help refugees are anticipating a growing clientele as a result of the


"(A disaster) absolutely increases the number (of people coming in),"

said Timmi Pierce, vice president for agency advancement for the

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

"When homes are destroyed or damaged, people come our way," she said.

"It's something we try to anticipate."

Pierce added that the service assists people who come into the U.S.

under the quota system. "But we do try to assist others when we can,"

she said.

Many disaster response organizations are trying to send a compelling

message about Mexico, even while making other simultaneous appeals

for disaster survivors anywhere from North Carolina to Turkey to


LMichael Green, director of marketing for CARE, said that, for

response groups, the question is "how do you continue to communicate

about those impacted in a way that will inspire assistance?"

Particularly for overseas disasters, Green and other communicators

find it's helpful to focus the appeal. "You may find people

interested because their ancestors came from a certain part of the

world or they have other personal ties. So we make an added focus on

communities we think may be interested -- we 'heavy-up' the message to

constituencies that have a particular interest."

Green also said that more disasters shouldn't necessarily lead to

hesitation toward making more appeals. "On one level there is a

concern about donor fatigue, but on another level we're not the boy

crying wolf -- disasters happen frequently," he said.

Johnny Wray, who coordinates a Week of Compassion giving program for

the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said that, when there is

less press about a disaster, that usually means less donations.

"The exception might be where there is a place where we have strong

Disciples connections and because of that our churches will respond

even if little is said about it in the national media," he said.

Ultimately, "it becomes the church's job to let our congregations

know," he added.

The flooding in Mexico is a good example of "less press" leading to

subdued donations, said Linda Petrucelli, executive director of the

Office of Global Sharing Resources for the United Church of Christ.

"Less press usually means less donated money, because the perception

is that there is less of a need, that the disaster is less

devastating -- less important -- and we all know that is false."

But this doesn't necessarily apply to immigrant communities in the

U.S. who may respond to a disaster in their homeland, even one that

has comparatively little mainstream press coverage, she added.

In addition to assistance from relief groups, the governments of the United States, Canada, Cuba, Brazil, and other countries have offered money an

d assistance to help flood survivors.

Posted October 29, 1999

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