NEWS STORY: Religious relief groups responding to ravages of Mitch

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Even before the death toll mounted to staggering, close to five-digit totals, U.S. and international faith-based relief organizations were responding to the ravages unleashed across Central America by Hurricane Mitch.

Suffering losses at their own already-existing projects and stretched thin by the recent Hurricane Georges disaster and the refugee crisis in Kosovo, and hampered by devastated communications and transportation systems, the groups nevertheless are pouring money, material and personnel into Honduras and Nicaragua _ the hardest hit of the Central American nations battered by the weeklong storm and its aftermath of flooding and mudslides.”The immediate goal is to get food, water and medicine to the affected population,”said Rick Jones, Catholic Relief Services Program Manager for Nicaragua who was interviewed by telephone.

The death toll remains uncertain but as of Thursday, government and relief officials were estimating that as many as 9,000 people had died and thousands more were missing.

Relief officials are warning even more people will die unless workers are able to deliver the food, water and medicine staples to people.

Aid groups across the theological spectrum are involved in the effort. But they reported access to victims, especially those stranded in remote regions by destroyed roads and bridges, is making their work difficult, if not impossible.

Early in the week, rescue workers from Lutheran World Relief reported plucking children from the few patches of dry ground left after Mitch swept through the impoverished region. The group, a joint agency of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, also reported finding children lashed to tree branches so they would not fall into the flood waters as they slept.”There is still not access available and the only way food and supplies are being delivered is by helicopter,”said Jones.”It is probably the worst natural disaster in Nicaragua’s recorded history.” Compounding the problem for groups such as CRS, World Vision and others with longtime development projects in the region, is that projects, which would normally serve as a base of operations for relief efforts, have been destroyed.

Communication remains nearly impossible and some relief organizations remain cut off from communities where they have development projects, said World Vision spokesman Angie Bartel. The group, which operates 13 projects _ including child sponsorship programs _ in Honduras, is committing $5 million to relief efforts.”We are very, very fearful that we have lost sponsor children and children in the communities. Since we can’t get through to our communities it has heightened this fear even more,”said World Vision Spokeswomen Angie Bartel.

Three communities with World Vision projects located in the hard-hit northern coastal region of Yoro, Honduras, have still not been reached, officials said. Together, the communities consist of an estimated 4,000 children, their families and 20 World Vision staff members.”Roads are out, bridges are out. They just have no way to reach them,”Bartel said.”We would be completely lucky if we did not lose children and staff members.”For them to be able to rebound from this is going to take years. The prawn farms are gone, the banana and pineapple crops are gone … without these exports, these countries are going to be in a lot of trouble,”said Bartel.

Among some of the first responses were the transformation of churches and schools into shelters.

Other relief groups active in responding to Mitch include World Relief, the international assistance arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, working on, among other things, restoration of clean water to several poor neighborhoods in the town of Ocotal in northern Nicaragua. World Relief staff have purchased enough food to feed about 4,000 people for several weeks in 20 shelters, officials said.

Church World Service, the relief arm of the National Council of Churches, has already donated $40,000 in blanket fund money to the Honduras-based Christian Commission for Development and is joining with Action by Churches Together, the joint World Council of Churches-Lutheran World Federation international aid agency, to raise $250,000 for food, medicine and other relief material.

Mercy Corps, the Portland, Ore.-based aid agency, warned that the danger of diseases afflicting survivors is high as a result of the unsanitary conditions that follow such a disaster. “Mercy Corps is collecting funds to purchase water purification tablets and equipment, blankets, medicines, building supplies and vegetable seeds,”the organization said.

Other religious groups working to aid victims include the Council of Evangelical Churches in Nicaragua, Assemblies of God, Baptist World Aid, United Methodist Committee on Relief, B’nai B’rith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On Thursday (Nov. 5), the Clinton administration said it would provide $30 million in Defense Department equipment and services and $36 million worth of food, fuel and other aid in response to the disaster.

The administration response came two days after Honduran United Nations ambassador Hugo Noe-Pino appealed for international aid for the storm-stricken region. He estimated that the storm had destroyed 70 percent of the country’s infrastructure and gross domestic products, and put the country’s development efforts back at least 30 years.”The need of food, medicine, clothes and other basic things is very, very important. The government is at this moment unable by itself to assist all the people,”said Noe-Pino.

Separately, the Vatican released a letter to the survivors in which Cardinal Angelo Sodano expressed Pope John Paul II’s sadness and prayers for the victims. John Paul exhorted”institutions and all people of good will, moved by fraternal solidarity and Christian charity, to offer efficacious help to overcome this difficult period.”


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