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Post-Disaster Aid in Burma, China

Christoph Gorder
AmeriCares Vice President of Emergency Response; AmeriCares Director of Strategic Initiatives
Tuesday, May 13, 2008 10:00 AM

The past week has seen two devastating natural disasters strike Asia -- a typhoon in Burma may have killed more than 60,000, and an earthquake in China, where at least 8,500 died.

Christoph Gorder, who is coordinating Burma and China relief as vice president of AmeriCares, was online Tuesday, May 13 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the post-disaster situations in Burma and China, the bureaucratic hurdles slowing international aid, and how Americans can help the victims.

The transcript follows.

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Christoph Gorder: Good morning. This is Christoph Gorder, Vice President of Emergency Response at AmeriCares. We are a U.S.-based international relief organization with aid workers in Yangon. We have been responding to natural and man-made disasters around the world for 25 years and look forward to answering your questions.

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Alexandria, Va.: What exactly can someone in the Mid-Atlantic region do for the people enduring these catastrophes?

Christoph Gorder: Our ability to help depends on the support of many people like you. In this case, logistical challenges are extraordinary, so we need people to stay the course with us while we overcome them. Progress is being made every day. The best way for you to help us is to support us financially. Many of the medicines we are sending are donated by the manufacturers and your contributions pay directly for airlift and on-the-ground distribution to the hard hit southern delta region.

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Newton, Mass.: Why doesn't the U.S. begin unilaterally air-dropping aid to the desperate people of Myanmar? I understand that this would violate the principle of national sovereignty, but isn't there an even more important principle at stake here -- the survival of hundreds of thousands of people?

Christoph Gorder: Aside from the issue of sovereignty, in this case, air drops would not be very effective in a flooded delta region. The population is very scattered and dispersed. The option of unilateral aid has been raised, but there is broad consensus that coordinated distribution by truck and boat will be the most effective in putting the supplies and food in the hands of the people who need it.

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Sarasota, Fla.: The news reports say that the aid-givers are "blocked" from reaching the victims. What measures are the military rulers of Myanmar using to prevent organizations like AmeriCares from helping those who need it? Also, doesn't the United Nations charter specifically state that when a disaster like this occurs, the authorities -- in this case the Myanmar government -- "shall grant and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced"? That is taken verbatim from the "United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement."

Christoph Gorder: The government ministries have stringent restrictions on the movement of international aid workers outside of Yangon. These restrictions are heightened in the aftermath of the disaster, but movement for international staff in Myanmar has been controlled for decades. There is a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and compassion for victims from the local community. Burmese doctors, nurses and NGO staff are being given passage to the affected areas. AmeriCares is working to supply those doctors and nurses because there is a acute shortage of life-saving medicines.

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Sarasota, Fla.: Can you elaborate on what, specifically, the "bureaucratic hurdles" are, that organizations like AmeriCares must try to deal with?

Christoph Gorder: In the aftermath of any disaster, including Hurricane Katrina in this country or the tsunami in southeast Asia, there are protocols for landing permits, flight plans, visas, operating permission, etc. ... A disaster of this magnitude is overwhelming to the authorities. Myanmar has never experienced a disaster of this scale and does not have the capacity or experience in processing this type of international outpouring of relief. The political complications enhance this. AmeriCares has staff in Yangon who are daily meeting with the various government ministries to navigate the hurdles and we believe that we will be successful in these endeavors, based on our past experience in similarly complicated environments.

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Washington: My father is visiting Southwest China on vacation. I don't think he was in the city at the center of the earthquake, but I have yet to hear from him since it happened. At what point should I be worried? How is the communications in neighboring providences? And what is the best thing to do if you have friends/family in a natural disaster area overseas?

Christoph Gorder: I hope your father is safe and can contact you soon. These are heart-wrenching times for millions of people as they seek news of their loved ones and seek to be reunited with their families.

Natural disasters knock out power and communications lines. Sometimes it takes days, if not weeks, to restore these facilities. Organizations will be setting up family reunion centers and information about these and how to contact them are normally published in newspapers and announced on the radio.

I sincerely hope you find him soon.

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Washington: How do relief organizations deal with two disasters at once? How are you able to send aid to Myanmar and address the earthquake in China -- aren't you stretched too thin? Do you have permanent operations in these places that you mobilize when a disaster happens?

Christoph Gorder: AmeriCares is prepared to respond to multiple disasters simultaneously. We respond to more than 30 disasters a year around the world, in addition to maintaining ongoing support to protracted crises, such as Darfur. After the tsunami in 2004, we operated large-scale relief efforts in three countries.

In addition to all the work we are doing in and around Myanmar, a second team began assembling in Beijing yesterday, where we are mobilizing resources to help in China. We are also preparing to launch our tenth airlift into Darfur within days.

AmeriCares specializes in putting medicines and medical supplies in the hands of health workers in disaster zones.

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Washington: What did it accomplish for Laura Bush to come out and immediately denounce the government of Myanmar? To get outside aid to the victims it is necessary to be pleasant to local governments in all situations. Her rhetoric doomed a lot people in a situation where they didn't have much of a chance to begin with.

Christoph Gorder: The focus on politics is a distraction from the people who are suffering and dying every day. Our mission as a humanitarian aid organization is to save lives and right now we are focusing all of our energies on doing just that.

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Washington: It's been more than a week, and people in Myanmar still aren't getting food and water. How long is it going to take to get relief to these victims, and how long are they going to need help?

Christoph Gorder: We are still in the early phases of the immediate relief effort. The health workers are overwhelmed by people arriving with lacerations and abrasions that are susceptible to infection. We are also seeing a lot of blunt trauma such as broken bones and internal injuries. We're starting to see more diarrhea and respiratory infections and we worry about cholera and other deadly outbreaks. The antibiotics, pain medication, rehydration therapy and wound care supplies we're sending are critical to this phase.

We expect to transition in the coming weeks and months to a longer term strategy for displaced populations and restoring health services. The people are totally dependent on rural health centers, and those have been completely decimated.

There is much to be done and it will take a long time. We are committed to do everything in our ability to help. Our capacity will be -- in large degree -- dependent on public support. 98 percent of our resources are allocated to our relief programs. Every bit of help counts. You can learn more about us at our Web site

Thank you all for your concern and compassion for the people of both Myanmar and China.

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