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Launching the First Wave of Relief

By Peter D. Bell
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B01

ATLANTA

Reports about the earthquake and deadly ocean surge started rolling in to Scott Faiia, CARE's country director in Sri Lanka, last Sunday morning, shortly after he and his wife, who were still sleeping at their home in Colombo, felt a jolt from an aftershock. Scott had already given his staff the green light to use CARE vehicles to move people away from the coast, where, they had told him, "the ocean is rising." He couldn't understand exactly what was happening but was worried. "First we heard there were a few hundred dead, then we heard, 'It's a thousand,' then it was 4,000, 5,000. The numbers kept rising," he told me.

The first challenge in any emergency is getting accurate information. While Scott was gathering information and relaying it to us as best he could, relying on cell phones and the few office lines that were still working, we in Atlanta were doing our best to fit all the pieces together. Updates were coming in from our other offices, in Thailand, India and Indonesia. We were coordinating with CARE International emergency staff in Brussels and Geneva, deploying staff from around the world. Hour by hour, we sent our emergency experts to media interviews to share what we knew. As the news worsened, phone calls with offers of help came in with unprecedented frequency. People who had never given to us before walked into our headquarters with donations. And, the most emotional task of all: I tried to console by phone family members of missing staff who held onto hope that their loved ones could be found.


After the wave, a stream of aid: International groups have struggled to get help to tsunami victims. (Gautam Singh -- AP)

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Most of our aid workers have dealt with crises before. Experience helps. So does a heart of gold and a spine of steel. Scott, who has worked for CARE for 28 years, has handled emergencies from Ethiopia to Haiti, from Somalia to Nepal.

In quick phone conversations, a tireless Scott told us that he had sent his most seasoned field director from Colombo, on the west coast, to the disaster area. It took seven hours for him to reach the worst affected area on the east coast, we heard, and even there, the enormity of the devastation remained unclear. Scott alerted CARE International's emergency director on Monday of the need for extra funds and help. Yet, "we couldn't begin to grasp the scale until late that night," Scott said. It was 72 hours after that first jolt before he knew that Sri Lanka alone already had 25,000 dead.

Initially, Scott told us, he authorized his program managers in five districts encompassing the worst-hit coastal sites to use $10,000 each in emergency funds to buy nonperishable food and bottled water to help displaced people. In general in Sri Lanka, $5,000 can buy a day's ration of food for more than 8,000 people, and another $5,000 can provide packs of supplies for 500 families, including buckets, mats, cooking pots and chlorine tablets to purify water for a month.

CARE workers teamed up with local district government and United Nations officials as well as other aid agencies to sort out who would do what in the small towns. A handful of CARE trucks were dispatched to ferry the injured to hospitals and dead bodies to burial locations. At that point, many of the victims were still in shock, hardly comprehending what was happening to them and too traumatized to ask for help.

By Monday morning, as he took alarming calls from his staff in the disaster areas, Scott realized that CARE would need much more money, and that he would have to start deploying many more of his 250 staff.

Our staff members are the lifeblood of our organization. In times of crisis, knowing the local terrain is key: arranging transportation and logistics, finding suppliers, coordinating with local governments and other relief agencies -- all of these vital tasks can be tough for outsiders who arrive after a disaster occurs. CARE has been in India since 1950, in Sri Lanka since 1956, in Indonesia since 1967 and in Thailand since 1979, which helps us to mobilize quickly, as Scott was able to do.

Each disaster is devastating in its own cruel, unique way. Responding to a famine that starts with inadequate rain and culminates with a failed harvest can mean trying to save hundreds of thousands of lives -- but over months and months. A disaster like the tsunami last weekend, however, kills without warning and propels us to action -- scrambling to relieve suffering, sometimes at the risk of losing one's own life. Last September, in the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne in Haiti, CARE logistical coordinator Mitial Aldonias drowned while pulling people from the mudslides that devastated the city of Gonaives.

In the first two days in Sri Lanka, CARE bought, assembled and distributed 20,000 packs of rations including water, mats, utensils, bedding, clothing, toiletries, rice, tea, sugar, dal, tinned food, candles, matches, oral rehydration medicine and baby food. We also built temporary trench latrines.

Each day the numbers have grown. By the end of the week, for example, we had distributed 200,000 bottles of sodium hypochlorite solution, enough to treat water for 1 million people.

From the beginning in Sri Lanka, as in the other affected countries, we worried about the safety of our own staff. Fortunately, everyone was accounted for within 48 hours of the catastrophe -- though many had lost family members and friends. Soon we were devastated by the news that CARE's country director for Nepal, Robin Needham, was dead -- drowned while vacationing on an island off Thailand.

Aid workers often face obstacles in locating the resources to mount relief operations. Here again, every disaster is different. In Sri Lanka, we purchased most supplies just several miles inland; however, now Scott needs to acquire bed sheeting from nearby countries because he's running out. In Ethiopia and Somalia, Scott had to import almost everything -- food, fuel, vehicles.


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