NICARAGUAN President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro made a plea for help Wednesday for the thousands of victims of the tsunami that rolled over her country's Pacific shores Tuesday night, killing an estimated 100 people.
After touring stricken coastal areas, Mrs. Chamorro stressed the limited resources available to deal with the emergency, saying: "We are a country on public charity, as there aren't many things we can provide overnight."
Overtly, the Nicaraguan leader's appeal was aimed at the international community, which normally comes to the rescue of countries facing this sort of emergency. But the appeal may have included a subtle message directed at Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Maisto, who arrived in Managua Wednesday to discuss the question of suspended United States economic aid for Nicaragua.
The disaster occurred Tuesday evening when a powerful but slow-developing offshore earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, generated giant waves which in spots attained heights of 50 feet. The tsunamis smashed into a dozen or more small seaside towns, many of them popular bathing spots, destroying beachfront dwellings. In many cases, the rapidly rising water penetrated hundreds of yards inland, wreaking further havoc.
Survivors told of being swept through their houses by the rushing water, clinging to coconut palms, and even of being lifted to high ground by one wave just as another wave seemed about to drown them.
Coastal towns were hard-hit by the tsunamis. In Masachapa, 35 miles south of Managua, 15 people died, many of them children. El Transito, 50 miles from the capital, suffered 16 fatalities. Most people in the seaside villages are very poor; they earn their living principally from local tourism and small-boat fishing.
The quake is the strongest to hit Nicaragua since the earthquake that destroyed downtown Managua in 1972, killing 10,000 people, and it is the second natural disaster to befall the country in the space of five months.
As coastal residents combed through their wrecked homes, other Nicaraguans wondered whether the country's fresh misfortune might bring a hidden blessing and prompt the Bush administration to release the more than $100 million in US aid that has been frozen since May 27 at the behest of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.
Senator Helms' office released a report Monday blasting the Chamorro government for supposed subservience to the leftist Sandinistas, failure to return confiscated US properties, misuse of US aid funds, and human rights violations. The report created waves of its own - ones strong enough to send Mr. Maisto to Managua to "review the bases for our aid relationship."
Nicaragua's dire economic situation, marked by more than 50 percent unemployment or underemployment, will likely worsen if the promised US aid is not quickly released. The US provided more than $300 million during Chamorro's first year in office, and such aid has provided the underpinnings for Nicaragua's stablilization program, which in the opinion of experts will quickly unravel without a fresh injection of funds.
Though no estimates of overall damage have emerged, the scope of this week's disaster - 15,000 people are estimated to have been affected - suggests the need for immediate and longer-term relief.
According to figures released late Wednesday by a national emergency committee formed to deal with the crisis, the tsunami death toll neared 100, with 150 more having disappeared and 4,200 having been evacuated from their homes. In addition, the walls of water left about 800 houses, most fairly humble dwellings, reduced to rubble.
Donor countries responded quickly, with Costa Rica sending a team of 30 disaster specialists and paramedics Wednesday. The same day, Nicaragua's Foreign Cooperation chief, Erwin Kruger, was already discussing a plan with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to help fishermen whose boats and tackle were damaged by the surging tides.
The US Embassy in Managua has pledged $25,000 from a petty cash fund available to assist in times of crisis.
After Chamorro talked with Maisto Wednesday night, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Jose Pallais could offer Nicaraguans no firm prospect for a quick resumption of the suspended assistance, saying only: "This consultation gives the Bush administra- tion sufficient material to work with its Congress."