From disaster, 'a moment of opportunity'


The tsunamis that have devastated South Asia are proving that Americans are remarkably eager to show they care -- delivering a torrent of money already totaling tens of millions of dollars to private relief groups by Internet, phone and mail.

Last week, the flood of giving briefly knocked down the Internet site of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, where President Ken Hackett called the response extraordinary.

"All of the sudden, people are saying, 'How can we let something like this happen?'" said Hackett, who noted that he had seen such a generous response only once before in his 33 years in the aid business -- during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.

On Thursday, the agency pledged to spend $25 million and said the money is available.

"We must brace for the commitment this emergency asks of us and be as generous as we can," Hackett said in a statement announcing the pledge.

Hackett and Kathryn Wolford, president of Lutheran World Relief, also based in Baltimore, agreed in interviews last week that the response has been intensely personal, in the United States and around the world.

"This is a transformative moment for everyone," Hackett said. "We're all feeling the pain that people are suffering. It's not about their religion, not about their nationality, not about their wealth. We all feel the pain of loss."

The timing of the tsunamis, immediately after religious holidays, gave the disaster extra impact, Wolford said. "People sat looking at gifts they didn't need or even want," she said. "They couldn't look away without feeling deep compassion."

Individual Americans have responded generously to the agony they are seeing on TV with offers of aid, Hackett said. "We are seeing an outpouring of concern. ... People want to engage -- get their arms around this thing."

But the relief experts have no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead.

The full dimensions of the catastrophe are only gradually becoming clear -- many more than 100,000 lives lost in the initial flood, billions of dollars in damage in 12 Asian nations, including many of the poorest in the world, and an immeasurable added toll of disease and hunger as millions struggle to survive in the chaos of the aftermath.

Recovery, the experts agree, will take a very long time -- a generation or more to rebuild homes, communities and local economies.

Wolford noted that her agency is just now ending its effort to aid survivors of Hurricane Mitch, which took 10,000 lives in Central America in 1998. "Our plan is to respond for at least three to five years," she said of the latest disaster.

Hackett anticipates a five-to-10-year tsunami effort for Catholic Relief. And the aid workers know that even a disaster this terrible will fade from headlines in a few weeks or months -- when some fresh storm breaks in Iraq or elsewhere around the world. When that happens, they say, the flow of financial aid for the tsunami victims will slow and the job will become more difficult.

And there is the concern that the focus on helping these victims will divert attention and resources from other crises around the world, like the continuing civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the International Rescue Committee estimates that 3.8 million lives have been lost to disease and famine over the past six years.

Still, Hackett and Wolford see this as a moment of opportunity to reach past traditional barriers of race and class and politics, and help build a better life for the survivors.

"It's a moment of opportunity," Hackett said.

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