Bodies pile up as disease follows the floods. So where is the deluge of aid?

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The Independent Online
THE US AGENCY for International Development described the destruction visited on Central America by Hurricane Mitch as quite simply "the worst disaster we have seen in this hemisphere".

The UN World Food Programme declared the tempest had set the region back 20 years in just one day. "There are no crops to harvest, few wild foods to forage for and no animals to slaughter" the agency baldly announced. "The destruction is huge."

Huge indeed: Hurricane Mitch has killed 9,000, with many thousands more missing and a million or more homeless. Whole populations and the infrastructure that supports them have been wiped out, and it is taking the world a long time to adjust to what has happened. The relief effort is only now starting to come to terms with the monumental scale of the disaster.

With only a small amount of the money so far pledged reaching the scene, one British aid agency argued that the effort was "just a drop in the bucket".

Although Hurricane Mitch struck seven days ago, the international reaction has been slow. The amount of cash and equipment being donated may be rising, but not as quickly as the death toll.

On Wednesday Honduras estimated that 5322 people had been killed. Yesterday that figure had risen to 7000. In the same period the numbers feared dead in Nicaragua more than doubled from 1300 to 3,000.

On the ground even experienced aid workers are shocked. Daniel Alegria, an Oxfam representative in Managua, described his surroundings as "worse than Dante's inferno. The roads stink because there are dead animals and dead people. The epidemics are starting , people are dying and many are stranded.

"There is no way the aid is going to be sufficient. It is just a drop in the bucket.

"I am reeling from shock," he added. "I cannot describe the situation here. Nicaragua has been hit by a tidal wave, an earthquake, a revolution and now a hurricane. All that's left is for fire to fall from the sky."

The response of the international community has been mixed, and although governments are now putting aside money for aid, only a part of that has so far been released.

The initial reluctance to provide large sums has surprised commentators, especially given the overwhelming scale of the tragedy, and its long- term implications for Central America.

In fact, emergency aid has consistently been cut world-wide over the past decade. The UN consolidated appeals fund for natural disasters and war in 1998 raised less than half the $2.1bn it needed. Four years earlier, three quarters of the required $2.78bn was raised.

The devastation from Hurricane Mitch has been slow to capture international attention. Of Britain's aid, only pounds 51,000 has reached the Nicaraguan government so far.

President Bill Clinton ordered yesterday that $30m in Defense Department equipment and services and $36m in food, fuel and other aid be provided to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The US is expected to use other agencies - including the Catholic Church - to help alleviate the plight of Central America's victims.

"People are starting to go hungry," said a US embassy official who was stranded for 10 days by the storm in Ocotal, a city near the Honduran border.

"You could feel the anxiety. People were coming in for food from the countryside and they were leaving empty-handed, and a little angry."

Even as planeloads of supplies poured in on Wednesday from Europe, Mexico, Canada and the United States,

Nicaraguan government officials said that a shortage of helicopters has made it nearly impossible to get critical goods to many of the hardest- hit areas, which are still unreachable by road.

The sums so far made available are small by the standards of the global community and international diplomacy. President Clinton's visit to China cost the American tax-payer around $40m.

Other countries have appeared more eager than the US. Europe has led with way with a donation of pounds 4.85m for Central America, money that will be deployed through charities that are working in the field.

Emma Bonino, the commissioner in charge of the EU's humanitarian office, may soon visit the region, although at a meeting yesterday she told officials that the priority was to send help, rather than politicians.

And Taiwan, not one of the world's richest nations but one that has a close diplomatic and economic relationship with the region - because of the diplomatic recognition it gets in return for its largesse - has already given around pounds 1.6m.

In addition, there have been other practical gifts including aircraft, food and medicines from Mexico.

Nicaragua has received the use of three helicopters from Mexico, three from the USA and three from Panama.

But as aid officials repeatedly point out, helicopters provide puny levels of aid - what is really needed are armies of earth-moving equipment, pontoon bridges and engineers. In Nicaragua alone 103 bridges have been washed away, stranding many of the people who need help most

The British ambassador is said to have requested 95 pontoon bridges. One EU official said: "At the moment the problem is not dollars, it is logistics. The problem is how to operate in the field."

Some of the aid that is desperately needed is being put in place. France plans to sends 250 rescue workers, half of them soldiers, to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The French navy is also sending a ship loaded with trucks and equipment to help reopen communication lines as well as construction materials. The British ship HMS Sheffield is still on station off the coast of Honduras.

Until an assessment has been carried out, much of the cash that has been pledged will not be brought into play. there are also problems in coordinating the assessment process.

In the long-term, however, money will be needed on a massive scale because all the economies in the region have been so deeply affected.

Nora Campos Delankes, the Nicaraguan ambassador to London, says: "We have lost the infrastructure of our country; we have lost roads and bridges. The aid is not sufficient, certainly for the long-term, because, after a proper assessment, the appeal will not be any longer one to save lives, but to reconstruct a country."

The worst comparable disasters of recent times include a 1991 tropical storm in the Philippines that killed more than 7,000 and a cyclone in Bangladesh in April 1991 that claimed 139,000 lives.