After the floods, a tide of help

The world responds to Central America's hurricane Mitch disaster as if to the family next door.

Hurricane Mitch is described in many ways: the deadliest hurricane of the century, the storm that set back Central America three or four decades.

But in the end Mitch might be remembered as the first big hurricane to strike the global village.

"For us this was not some abstract problem, this was a disaster that hit our brothers," says Ronnie Dennis, a farmer and electrician from Durant, Okla. He's in Estel, Nicaragua, distributing $18,000 in aid from his area's Churches of Christ.

After six years of evangelical work in hard-hit northern Nicaragua, he says, "our folks received the call for help like it was coming from family."

The global focus on the region has hardly abated a month after Mitch killed more than 11,000 people, uprooted hundreds of thousands more, and destroyed much of the transportation, other infrastructure, and agricultural production in Honduras, Nicaragua, and, to a lesser extent, neighboring countries.

At macro and micro levels, aid continues to pour in from, for example:

* Countries announcing large aid packages and debt relief.

* A Canadian church group bringing in water purifiers.

* And schoolchildren in Washington and Mexico City collecting coins for the distressed southern neighbors they've never met.

"There's an outpouring that certainly reflects something coming from the heart," says Hugh Byrne, policy analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group that last week sent a letter to President Clinton calling for even more US assistance than the $250 million already announced. "It's a sign of the varied interests in the area."

Intense media coverage of the disaster is another key factor, according to everyone from a Japanese official in Tokyo to a French soldier coordinating his country's relief distribution in Managua. In particular, wide coverage of a deadly mudslide caused by the rim collapse of Nicaragua's Casita volcano gave a regionwide disaster a heartbreaking, human focus.

"We had a 20th-century Pompeii right here in Nicaragua, and that caught the attention of the world," says Lino Gutirrez, US ambassador in Managua. That calamity had an especially strong impact far away in Bloomington, Ind., which has a sister city relationship with Posoltega at the foot of Casita (story below).

Ideological leanings often affected the ties that developed between Central America and other parts of the world during cold-war-era civil wars in the '80s. Today's relationships are more humanitarian and developmental in nature, says Ambassador Gutirrez - but no less intense. Emigration has resulted in large communities of Central Americans outside their region, particularly in the US, he adds.

"There's a sense this happened to neighbors, more than if something similar struck Brazil and certainly more than China or Bangladesh," says Lisa Haugaard, legislative coordinator with the Latin America Working Group in Washington.

Ms. Haugaard also cites the impact that having a Central American next door has had on many Americans. "A lot of people got a very personal sense of what Mitch had done through a housekeeper [or] someone in the PTA who has family down there who is hurting."

Los Angeles has the US's largest Central American population (an estimated 380,000). There aid efforts started before Mitch's floods had stopped.

Miami has an especially large community of Nicaraguans who left their country during the Marxist-leaning Sandinista government of the 1980s. There warehouse space was quickly donated - and filled - with everything from bottled water to plastic sheeting and plywood for home reconstruction.

Mitch also provided a wide range of countries an opportunity to bask a few moments on the world stage.

French President Jacques Chirac, during a long-scheduled swing through Central America after Mitch, used the stage to announce the cancellation of $134 million in debt of four affected countries - Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala - and to plead his case for a more "humane" international financial order than the current model established after World War II.

Cuba announced the forgiving of $50 million in debt that Sandinista Nicaragua racked up with the Communist island in the 1980s. It also caused an uproar when its offer to send medical teams to Nicaragua was initially rebuffed by the conservative, anti-Castro government of President Arnoldo Alemn. The offer was subsequently accepted, and the first Cuban doctors have already arrived in Managua.

In another striking event, five Japanese C-130 transport planes landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, earlier this month with mobile hospitals and other medical equipment - the first time Japanese soldiers are being deployed in disaster relief outside Japan since World War II. The assistance effort is likely to go beyond short-term emergency relief to something with longer impact, observers say, because so much of the post-Mitch aid involves countries, development organizations, church groups, and individuals with strong ties to the region.

"The networks we've set up, the people we know closely and things like the rural farmers' associations we'd already set up put us in an ideal position to continue beyond relief to economic reactivation," says Kevin Sanderson, Managua director of World Relief, a Wheaton, Ill.-based nondenominational evangelical development organization. "People know we're not going anywhere just because of Mitch."

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