As flood waters from hurricane Mitch start to recede in Honduras and Nicaragua, the US Department of Defense is sending in Blackhawk helicopters to help rescue people; the American Red Cross is buying rice, beans, and bottled water to feed the homeless; and countries around the world are reaching into their pockets to help the stricken region.
Relief experts believe the effort will be one of the most difficult undertaken in Central America. Entire villages have been destroyed by mudslides, hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless, and most of the region's agricultural capabilities have been destroyed.
Compounding the problems, bridges have been washed away, airfields are still under water, and communication is almost nonexistent.
"There are so many needs, our people are overwhelmed," says Christopher Thomas, a spokesman for the American Red Cross natural disaster services.
Nevertheless, disaster aid is on the way. The United States is supplying 20 aircraft, inflatable boats, and special helicopters, including the giant Chinook helicopters that can move large plastic bladders of clean water.
"I don't think anyone has recognized the magnitude of this yet," says Lt. Col. Bill Darley, a spokesman at the Pentagon.
The American Red Cross says its first goal is triage, assigning priorities. It is trying to rush in medical personnel to tend to the injured. It is trying to rush in plastic tarps to provide primitive shelter for the 600,000 people who are currently without housing in Honduras.
"Right now, our immediate needs are for antibiotics, baby formula, and massive quantities of clothing and food," says Mr. Thomas. "However, the best way for people to help is to call our toll-free number to donate cash because money goes directly to the country."
The European Union donated $7.7 million to the relief effort. The money will be used for basic care such as medicine, food, water, sanitation, and blankets. In addition, Pope John Paul II appealed for aid for the victims. The United States is still assessing the total amount of money it will send to the area.
Raising money for the disaster is going to be a challenge for the aid communities. They have already put in a lot of effort to raise money for hurricane Georges relief. In a normal year, the Red Cross spends $60 million to $70 million on major disasters. So far this year it has spent $110 million.
Elizabeth Dole, the head of the Red Cross, recently kicked off a drive to raise an additional $50 million to replenish the disaster relief fund.
Once the immediate needs are met in Central America, relief officials believe they will have to begin thinking about helping to rebuild the infrastructure in the countries.
"Obviously, this creates a long-term redevelopment problem," says Rekha Chalasani, a spokesman for the US Agency for International Development, which has sent $3.5 million in relief funds to the region so far.
THE area will also need major economic help for its industry. According to early estimates, some 70 percent of Honduras agricultural production was destroyed Aid groups expect it will take years for banana and coffee plantations to recover.
In fact, some of the banana companies, such as Chiquita Brands International, are planning to ship emergency food and clothing supplies to the region. In addition, smaller private groups are also collecting donations. For example, in central Florida, Mercy Air of Titusville, a nonprofit group, is volunteering to help ferry goods to the islands off Honduras. The hurricane pounded the islands with 180-mile-per-hour winds for days.
HOW TO HELP THOSE IN NEED
* The following members of InterAction, a Washington-based association of aid agencies, are accepting contributions for assistance to victims of hurricane Mitch:
American Red Cross
Baptist World Aid
Brother's Brother Foundation/Nicaragua
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Services
1-800-297-1516, Ext. 222
Doctors of the World
Mercy Corps International
Partners of the Americas
Save the Children
United Methodist Committee on Relief
- Associated Press