Across US, an outpouring of aid to help tsunami victims

When Bevis Peries heard that a tsunami had hit his native Sri Lanka, his immediate response was to call his sister, to make sure she was all right. But his next step was to spring into action: As president of the Sri Lanka Association of New England, he set up a bank account for donations, and began collecting food, clothing and medical supplies from the local ethnic community.

Over the past few days, he says, he's been struck by his neighbors' generosity - from businesses asking how they can contribute, to children going door to door for donations.

"The community tends to be together anyway," he says. "We have our little arguments among different groups, but this is something that will transcend all those things."

While the tsunami may have struck on the other side of the world, ripple effects of more positive kind are emerging across America, as communities and concerned individuals from Massachusetts to Texas rally to provide aid to victims and survivors.

With some 44,000 fatalities already counted in 12 countries, and the death toll still rising, the disaster will require one of the largest and most expensive relief efforts in history. Already, some two dozen countries have contributed supplies or workers. Tuesday, the US government pledged to contribute $20 million, in addition to its initial pledge of $15 million in aid, and is likely to contribute more in weeks to come. American embassies have given $400,000 to India, Indonesia, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka, and the US has pledged $4 million to the Red Cross. A team of US government emergency-relief experts has been sent to the region to coordinate the response.

Humanitarian groups' daunting task

But a significant share of the overall relief effort will come not from the government but from humanitarian groups - and will be fueled by donations from average citizens who, in watching the scenes of devastation on television, simply feel compelled to help however they can.

Experts point out that, after an earthquake struck Iran last year, the flow of donations set a global record. Given the scope of the current tragedy - and the attention it is receiving in the media - many expect to see similar levels of generosity in days and weeks to come.

"People feel an individual responsibility," says Christoph Gorder, vice president for international programs at AmeriCares. Mr. Gorder's organization, which is preparing to fly medical supplies to affected areas, has already been flooded with calls from people wanting to contribute. "It's actually very inspiring to see how people come together."

Experts say the relief effort, which could wind up costing $1 billion or more, presents an enormous logistical challenge, with affected areas spread out over thousands of miles, in multiple countries, including remote islands. The initial focus, aside from ongoing search and rescue, will be on providing emergency supplies - food, water, and shelter - for the more than a million people left homeless or displaced. A major concern among aid workers will be trying to ward off outbreaks of disease, given the unsanitary living conditions and contaminated drinking water.

"This is going to be an extremely expensive response effort because of the location, the shipping, and the limited support mechanisms in place," says Ron Patterson, executive director of the Christian Disaster Response organization based in Winter Haven, Fla. And the lack of security in many of the affected areas presents another complication: "There is the additional problem of terrorism in those countries. We are going to have to hire security for our personnel."

Another major challenge will be coordinating response efforts among the various groups involved. Many aid organizations have been emphasizing that cash donations are preferable to food or clothing, because they provide more flexibility and efficiency for shipping and transporting supplies.

A sense of connection to tragedy

Still, local disaster drives across the US are collecting everything from canned goods to sheets and towels. Much of the early activity is among church groups and immigrant populations - or both combined.

At the Houston Buddhist Vihara temple, donations began pouring in almost immediately. So far, the temple has sent $5,000 to a sister temple in Sri Lanka to help with the relief efforts.

"When we got the news, we organized the 'Save Sri Lanka' fund because people here want to do something," says temple steward Leslie Dharmawardene, who has lived in the US for only a month and a half. The money is still coming in, along with clothes and medicine.

Houston's India Culture Center organized a meeting of local Indian organizations Monday night, and set up a bank account - "Operation Tsunami Relief" - for donations. So far, they've received over $10,000 in pledges; they hope to raise a quarter of a million dollars in the next two weeks, says Ramesh Cherivirala, president of the center. They will also host a prayer service for the victims.

Dharma Dande, pastor of the Indian Christian Fellowship of New England, has already made plans to travel to the ravished areas of India, to distribute food, blankets, and clothing, and help rebuild homes. "I feel a great responsibility to help the families [of India] in their difficulties," he says. "I will be there as long as the situation demands."

But it's not just immigrant communities that feel impelled to offer aid - or feel connected to the victims.

In Florida, where many residents are still struggling to recover from a succession of hurricanes, the Broward County chapter of the American Red Cross says it has received many offers of help.

Similarly, in Galveston, Texas, where some 8,000 residents were killed when a hurricane struck the island in 1900, locals say that history still colors their response to disasters elsewhere.

"It is definitely still on the minds of Galveston residents," says Brady Warner, assistant director of the Galveston area Red Cross office. "I wouldn't be surprised if many of our ... churches and aid organizations get up and get going because of that."

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