As aid efforts pick up, toll continues to climb


The silence on the fourth floor of this nondescript brick building on West Fayette Street belies reality.

It is close to 4 p.m. on the day before a holiday weekend. But beneath the surface, big things are happening here at the world headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, between cubicles and offices, through the static of phone calls and the strokes of furiously typed e-mails.

At CRS yesterday, a tired-looking president and chief executive Ken Hackett is on the elevator up, about to recognize two employees with certificates for their tireless work this week.

Across the world, aid agencies near and far - from the mammoth forces of the International Red Cross to Lutheran World Relief in Baltimore - have mobilized for the world's largest relief campaign, a result of Sunday morning's underground earthquake off Sumatra, Indonesia, that sent massive waves tumbling across the Indian Ocean and crashing into the coastlines of nearly a dozen South and Southeast Asian countries and islands.

As the death toll crept past 117,000 yesterday, agencies like CRS - among the largest relief organizations in the world, with 4,000 people in more than 90 countries - find themselves dealing with one of their most trying tasks yet.

Daunting challenge

Though millions of dollars were quickly being pledged, helping victims in a dozen stricken countries is far more complicated than previous disaster relief efforts. Workers must reach seaside villages lacking transportation and communications. Water for hundreds of thousands must be purified. Food distribution must be arranged. After immediate needs are tended to, long-range rebuilding must be planned. And all of this must be accomplished even in those areas torn by political strife.

Sitting in a cubicle late yesterday afternoon, Chandreyee Banerjee, one of the employees honored, scrolls through hundreds of e-mails, on her third straight day working at least 15 hours. It'll be another late night tonight, she says with a weak smile, not expecting to leave until after midnight.

Around a corridor, Patrick Johns, director for security and emergency rapid response, has recently learned he is to get on a plane to Jakarta, Indonesia, tomorrow, where he will travel to the Aceh province and begin the difficult process of establishing a command center in a region where an infrastructure is virtually nonexistent.

"This is going to be very challenging," says Johnson. "I've dealt with many emergencies over the past 30 years," he says ticking off everything from the war in Cambodia, to famine in Ethiopia, to post-genocide work in Rwanda. "We're just dealing with enormous logistical difficulties here. We're juggling so many different locales."

Other relief agencies based in Maryland have also coped with logistical challenges this week.

Lutheran World Relief, unlike CRS, doesn't have staff based in the region. And though it had two local partners in India, it had none in Sri Lanka.

Nevertheless, by Wednesday the group had secured relationships with several groups in Sri Lanka, which will help it channel the $600,000 it is expecting to raise through private donations, said Daniel Chelliah, director for Asia and the Middle East.

Still, access to the northern part of the country, controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who have waged a two-decade civil war for autonomy, is difficult.

"There are some groups who work there with the permission of the government," said Chelliah, who said his group's partners are seeking the same permission.

Difficulties aside, most relief agencies are rising to the challenge.

At CRS yesterday, employees remained upbeat, toasting the two honored employees, cracking a few jokes and marveling at the thousands of residents across the country, from grade-school children to cab drivers, who have pledged money to millions of devastated victims.

CRS announced yesterday a $25 million pledge to the cause, a number that quickly swelled from the initial $500,000 committed on Monday.

"The response from the American public was so strong so quickly," said Michael Wiest, vice president and chief operating officer of the organization.

In fact, the organization's Web site was so inundated with donors Monday that it was incapacitated. The group had to get a contract with another company to go through a larger server.

They are now receiving about $100,000 an hour and more than $1 million a day. Raising funds is not the problem, officials say. Channeling the money, delivering relief supplies and deploying employees to the far-flung areas are the challenge.

Fortunately, CRS had a well-established network in the region, particularly in India, where some 180 employees are scattered across 13 states. Another 120 employees are based in Indonesia, though not in the hard-hit Aceh province. While there is no office in Sri Lanka, CRS is deploying some of its employees from India and other countries.

Workers head to Asia

Dozens of CRS employees from across the world are getting marching orders to hop on flights to the region.

Sitting in his office yesterday, Johns gets a phone call from his deputy, Dane Fredenburg.

He tells him to have a happy New Year in Vermont, where he is for the holidays, visiting from Nairobi, Kenya, where he's based. And after that, he quickly follows up, the next stop is off to Jakarta.

The timing of the catastrophe, officials agree, couldn't have been worse. Many employees were traveling or beginning vacations, grateful for some time off in a tough year with crises in Haiti and Sudan.

As the news exploded on television screens and airwaves across the world Sunday morning, top officials began contacting each other.

Phone trees calling people back to work were not necessary, Wiest said. Many employees canceled plans or trips on their own. Others worked from wherever they were.

Communication was established with locally based employees immediately, who were in the field and connecting with the group's extensive network of thousands of local partners. Affiliated groups on the international level were tapped for fund raising. And so the wheels were set in motion.

Relief efforts in India came easily, Wiest said. Getting staff into Sri Lanka took a little longer. The civil conflict in Aech has been the most difficult logistical problem. First they had to get the government to allow private agencies there. Now they have to deal with crumbling roads and a lack of fuel.

Still, Johns appears to be taking his latest challenge in stride.

And so many employees, like Banerjee, expect to be back at headquarters today and tomorrow and however long it takes, their work once again taking them well into the night.

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