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Responding to Asia's Tragedy

The U.S. has made a good start, but long-term reconstruction is the key challenge.

By Andrew S. Natsios
Published in The Washington Post
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A29

After the most powerful earthquake in 40 years triggered tidal waves Sunday that killed more than 119,000 people, USAID moved into action even before I had left church.

Our staff at the U.S. Agency for International Development set up internal task forces to prepare to deliver aid to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, India and other affected countries. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance began moving staff from its regional base in Bangkok to assess damage and extend assistance.

We linked up with the area's foreign disaster managers, whom we had previously helped train and equip to deal with typhoons, fires, epidemics and other disasters.

We also formed an interagency group in Washington that held teleconferences among officials from USAID, the State and Defense departments, and other U.S. agencies.

By Monday, barely 24 hours after the tsunami hit, the initial U.S. commitment was $15 million to start up our government's response to the crisis. That included $4 million toward an initial appeal for $7 million from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

We set up a response management team at USAID headquarters -- staffed round-the-clock -- to coordinate all information coming in from the field and shipments of food and other relief.

On Monday we also sent out a team of 21 experts known as DART -- Disaster Assistance Response Team -- to assess needs and hand out cash on the spot to relief groups for emergency food, water, medicine and other help. The following day, as the scale of the crisis increased, we mobilized 20 search-and-rescue specialists we had trained and equipped at the Los Angeles and Fairfax County fire departments.

The U.S. military also dispatched a dozen C-130 cargo planes, several P-3 search planes, and ships from Guam, Diego Garcia and Hong Kong to supply helicopters, move aid and provide fresh water.

By Wednesday President Bush announced that our early commitment through USAID had increased to $35 million. He stressed that this is only the beginning of a large and long-term commitment to help these countries not just survive the initial humanitarian crisis but also to rebuild.

That same day, the first two USAID flights delivered plastic sheeting for shelter, water bladders to hold and purify water, and jerrycans to transport the clean water -- all from pre-positioned supplies in Dubai. By yesterday four additional flights were in the air.

In addition, USAID diverted a shipload of 3,000 metric tons of rice to the heavily affected Aceh region of Sumatra, closest to the earthquake. We will supply other food aid through the U.N. World Food Program.

The president also announced Wednesday that we are setting up a core donor coordination group with Japan, India and Australia, and we hope other countries will join. This group will coordinate its relief activities with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is leading efforts to help survivors of the tsunami.

The United Nations is expected to launch an appeal for funds Jan. 6, and we expect to contribute.

However, the principal response -- as we see on television reports -- is rightly being made by the people of Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, which suffered the greatest damage. Their doctors, police, army and other public officials, as well as ordinary citizens, are quickly collecting the injured, disposing of the dead, bulldozing debris to reopen roads and sharing whatever they have with those who have lost everything. Our job is to support, not supplant or take over, local efforts by the first responders of the countries affected.

The United States gave $2.4 billion in humanitarian relief in 2004 -- about 40 percent of all emergency aid given by all donors combined -- and we knew that Americans would want to extend help in this latest and most horrible crisis. The haunting images of people washed away by giant waves, burying the dead, and searching for lost children and parents would not be ignored by this country or its government.

It is in the long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction process, however, that some of these countries will need the largest amount of assistance. In that, as in the emergency phase we are in, they rightly can count on the generosity of the American people and the swift, skilled response of its aid agency.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 40 years.

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