March 3, 2001
volume 12, no. 62

CRS urges additional U.S. aid for Indian earthquake relief

By Jennifer E. Reed, Catholic News Service

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Additional U.S. assistance is needed to continue earthquake relief efforts in western India, Catholic Relief Services and U.S. government officials told a congressional hearing.

    ``The Indian government cannot do it alone. Further assistance is required, and in this time of great crisis the extended hand of the U.S. will be very important,'' said Sean Callahan, CRS regional director for South Asia, testifying March 1 before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia via satellite from New Delhi. CRS is the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.

    The Jan. 26 quake that hit India's Gujarat state left more than 19,000 people dead and nearly 150,000 injured. It caused $2.1 billion in damage.

    U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Celeste, who also testified via satellite, said the United States has contributed nearly $13 million in earthquake assistance to India.

    A month after the quake hit, the situation ``is vastly improved. Immediate suffering has been greatly reduced. Because food and health needs are being addressed, and because coordination on the ground is stronger and stronger, today a shift in our emphasis from relief to reconstruction is emerging,'' Celeste said.

    Callahan said that CRS has more than 30 full-time staff working on the ground. As emergency response is coming to an end, he said, the relief effort is moving into its second phase of ``continuing with trauma counseling and the organization of communities ... to assist them in bringing back normalcy to their lives.''

    He noted that when the earthquake struck, the region was suffering its third year of drought: ``We're talking about an emergency within an emergency here.''

    In a March 1 release, CRS said it had committed $650,000 to the relief effort. Working with local partners, including Caritas India, CRS has reached more than 65,000 people in more than 70 villages with relief materials.

    Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., a Catholic, said in his testimony that he had returned the previous week from co-leading a congressional delegation to India to survey the damage.

    The two main aid priorities for the region are debris removal and temporary shelter, he said.

    ``Temporary shelter must be completed before the monsoon season arrives in June. This is a race against time,'' Royce said.

    He recommended the U.S. government press the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for funding for India, and that the United States ``share the expertise of disaster-management authorities in earthquake-prone American regions, such as California, with Indian officials to help them develop long-term disaster management plans.''

    He also urged pre-positioning of emergency supplies in the region since India has suffered numerous natural disasters in recent years. Indians are ``very realistic in facing the fact that there will be another disaster in the near future,'' he said.

    Leonard Rogers, acting administrator for humanitarian response for the U.S. Agency for International Development, noted that the Gujarat earthquake was 30 times more powerful than the Feb. 28 earthquake centered just northeast of Olympia, Wash.

    He praised the Indians for their handling of the emergency relief effort.

    ``Most of the material and manpower have come from the Indians themselves. They deserve credit for making the operation as effective as it has been,'' Rogers said.

    ``It will be important to build back better,'' he added.

    Royce, who said he had worked in the cement and mixed concrete business, noted that during the delegation's visit to the worst-affected Kutch district of Gujarat state, he noticed the poor construction of the buildings.

    ``You would pick up what was supposed to be cement and it had the lowest ratio of cement to sand that I've ever seen,'' he said.

    He asked Celeste whether Indian officials would be receptive to recommendations for building reconstruction and building codes.

    Celeste said several professors of engineering from U.S. institutions have been invited to Ahmedabad, the Gujarat capital, ``to look at what went wrong in terms of construction.''

    He noted that enforcement of building requirements is ``a matter of will of the local government,'' but added, ``I think this lesson is a very harsh lesson. My hunch is that people will be very attentive.''

    Celeste also said that the greatest need is for ``targeted assistance aimed at those who are most vulnerable. ... These are proud people. ... They want to get back to taking care of their own.''

    Several of the officials also stressed the importance of U.S. support to help India establish and train a rescue deployment team that would be ready to assist within 24 hours of a disaster.

March 3, 2001
volume 12, no. 62
USA News
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