Central America Hurricane Appeal: What you can do to help

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THE WORST Central American storm this century has affected 5 million people with flooding, landslides and wind damage. Many parts of the countries hit by Hurricane Mitch are still inaccessible to rescue and relief teams.

Wherever reporters have visited throughout the region over the past few days, victims have pleaded: "Please tell the world we need food, we need water we need clothes, we need medicine." Yet 10 days after the hurricane first hit land, most of its victims have seen no sign of aid. Independent readers now have the opportunity to respond to that universal plea. The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is co-ordinating the work of 15 charities in the region, maximising the contribution of each one by ensuring that all play to their strengths - in terms of their established local knowledge and structures.

The 15 are: Action Aid; British Red Cross; Cafod; Care International UK; Children's Aid Direct; Christian Aid; Christian Children's Fund GB; Concern Worldwide; Help the Aged; Merlin; Medecins Sans Frontieres; Oxfam; Save the Children; Tearfund and World Vision UK. There is a desperate need for both immediate disaster relief, and longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Disaster relief is targeted at those directly affected by the disaster, especially those living in temporary shelters. Support required includes food and clean water as well as mattresses, blankets, kitchen utensils and plastic sheeting or other materials for shelter.

Once these immediate needs have been met, the social infrastructure needs to be restored. This means repairing or rebuilding roads, bridges, hospitals and schools as well as electricity, water and sewage systems.

"It took some time for the international community to understand the scale of what happened here," said Ralph Richard Merriam, a Honduran and spokesman for the local branch of World Vision.

"It may have been not so much a lack of response, more a lack of understanding."

We are now starting to grasp the full and dreadful scale of what has happened to the people of Central America. All funds sent to the DEC will help to bring a relief that has been desperately needed but, for too long, not forthcoming.