Friday, September 02, 2005

New Orleans and Tsunami relief efforts

Ok, let's get a grip, people. The destruction and loss of life on the Gulf coast has been mind numbing. It's been five days and the media has focused primarily on the delay of aid reaching the people in trouble. And the chorus sings: How can the US send immediate aid around the globe to tsunami victims but not operate efficiently in a homeland crisis? The answer is that it is lots easier to send money than to send planes, boats, and human resources to a devastated area; an area, I might add, where the VICTIMS are shooting at the relief workers.

Look at the difference between tsunami aid and New Orleans.
On December 27, 5.30 pm the report of devastation read:
Total dead in Asia : 24,000
Sri Lanka - over 12,000 dead, almost 80,00,000 rendered homeless
India - 6000 in South India; 3000 in Andaman and Nicobar Islands which faced aftershocks registering 5 and 6.9 on the Richter scale
Indonesia - 4400 dead
Thailand - 840 dead

According to official estimates, at least 225,000 people died as an immediate result of the tsunami. At least a third of those killed were children. The coasts of India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar and Somalia were devastated. Schools, bridges and roads were washed away. More than 1.2 million people were forced from their homes.

Early estimates from the Gulf coast were that hundreds were feared dead. Five days later the numbers, though still early, hover well under 5,000. And fewer in all are in serious need than in India.

The difference is one in numbers, of course [and dead bodies are a lot easier to aid than living ones--keep this in mind]. But providing aid is equally difficult.
Also reported in other headlines: It is currently estimated that at least 12,000 people have been killed and thousands more are affected after an earthquake measuring over 8 on the Richter scale caused giant tidal waves and flash floods across southern Asia.

CARE's staff in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh are coordinating with the National Disaster Authorities to assess the specific requirements and initiate relief operations.

Yesterday CARE was assisting with the evacuation of people from affected areas to higher ground. Over the coming days CARE will be distributing water, shelter, food and clothing."

CARE was not active on the Gulf coast--at least I haven't heard them mentioned. But it is clear that in the Indian tragedy they spent some time assessing and planning AFTER the tsunami.

And then, instant relief and aid did not magically appearl. In an update from a tsunami relief source they reported that in Indonesia is planning to "send a full charter from Ostende, Belgium to Medan, in northern Sumatra (just outside Aceh), with 32 tons of medical and sanitation materials. It was originally hoped that it could leave tonight (December 27), but problems finding an available plane has delayed the flight until Wednesday. This flight is not yet confirmed."

So, there was difficulty and delay in sending help right away. And even later rescuers finally are sent three days after: Four expat staff (including one medical doctor, two logisticians and the Head of Mission) are ready to leave from Jakarta to Banda Aceh. They will hopefully be able to leave by Wednesday December 29 at the latest. More staff are ready to leave from Europe if necessary. Air assessment of Aceh with helicopters is planned for tomorrow or Wednesday.
The current official death toll for Indonesia is 5,000, but there is, as yet, absolutely no information about a long stretch of the west coast of northern Sumatra.
Malaria and dengue fever are anticipated to be serious problems. The desalination of water supplies will have to be a priority because salt water is contaminating fresh water supplies. Plans to provide psychological support for survivors.[end quote]

The media did not report any "?disgrace" on the part of the nations helping the tsunami relief. The picture was grim: "'We've had reports already from the south of India of bodies rotting where they have fallen and that will immediately affect the water supply especially for the most impoverished people,' said Christian Aid emergency officer Dominic Nutt." MSNC Jan. 3, 2005

No one is blamed. Explanations were offered for the delays as reported in the media, as such:
"'Some affected areas have had communications cut. Others are so remote it is impossible to know the extent of the damage.'" And "'This is a massive humanitarian disaster and the communications are so bad we still don't know the full scale of it. Unless we get aid quickly to the people many more could die,' said Phil Esmond, head of Oxfam in Sri Lanka."

Then there's the U.S. pledging of assistance: The US pledged $15 milion in aid and dispatched a few specialists, while the president expressed in letters his condolences.

The Seattle Times stated on 28 Dec. 2004 ---Some of the areas that have received the most attention -- such as coastal resort communities in Thailand are the least at risk for epidemics because of their advanced infrastructure and responsive, well-equipped governments, experts said. But there has been an eerie silence from more impoverished areas, such as in parts of conflict-torn Indonesia, the low and slowly sinking Maldive and Nicobar islands and Myanmar, where the authorities are telling international relief agencies "next to nothing," said Simon Ingram, a UNICEF spokesman in New York. [ST 12/28/04]

And further, a tsunami blog finally offers the first criticism on Dec. 29: In the past couple of days of red typical-tape confusion and mass fear and shock, a group of city college students have come together with willing and able everyday people to try and focus resources towards the in-the-field relief workers who are making a difference, especially in worst-hit zones in T.N such as Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, and smaller fishing vilages along the coast.----from Relief worker Blog Dec. 29

In outlying areas, rescue was cut off for three days due to conditions, according to sources close to the relief efforts. But it takes days, not hours, for help to arrive in some cases: Quite a bit of progress has happened in Pune. The local Indian Red Cross Society has sent out its first team of doctors, nurses and paramedics from Pune today who will be reaching Chennai on the afternoon of 31st Dec.and then move to the operation areas. They are carrying what is needed most - 'MEDICINE SUPPLIES' and monetary help.

The tsunami victims had NO prior warning to evacuate. The gulf residents, including those at the NO convention center, had 48 hours and public transportation waited for them to take them to safer, higher ground. Some left, and some chose to stay. Now, they see it was a bad choice to stay. But "mandatory evacuation" by definition ought to tell a person the seriousness of the choice they are about to make.

We will never know how well or poorly the U.S. government agencies and private help exercised relief for Katrina because the media is only interested in keeping you glued to the tv, and feeding the frenzy with newsreporters on the streets talking to victims is a sure way to sell air time. But is it the best way to get a big picture view---A view that tells the whole story and not the story of someone who is more than a little cranky for lack of food and water. It takes time for relief workers to travel with goods to crisis stricken areas, no matter where they are. We can always do better. We try to do our best. In this instant mashed potato society of micro-waves and bottled water, people are NOT willing to wait. Nor are they willing to take responsibilty for themselves and others and the environment. The lessons that teach us to CARE are difficult ones. Especially when you don't learn the lesson the first time.

Tsunami victims have come a long way in rebuilding their countries and their lives. If they can do it, why is there any doubt about Gulf coast residents, even the hardy folks of New Orleans. Of course they will rebuild. They will survive. Will they miss the ones they lost? Yes. But their fortitude in moving ahead and not looking back is what their loved ones would want for them. Americans will help them rebuild and relocate and carve even better lives out of this opportunity for change and doing their best.

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