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Seeking Survivors After Asian-Pacific Catastrophes

By Liz O'Neill and Michael Hill

In little more than one week, a series of horrific natural disasters has carved a swath of destruction from the tiny island of Samoa west to a massive section of southern India. The storms, earthquakes and monsoon rains have killed hundreds and left millions homeless.

Catholic Relief Services has increased commitments to deliver immediate and long-term aid to thousands of survivors.

Mother and child in front of a destroyed house.

Mother and child in front of a destroyed house. In and around Alung, Indonesia, hundreds of homes were severely damaged or destroyed by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake on September 30, 2009. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

"It's hard for us to comprehend these major disasters occurring in just a few days," says CRS President Ken Hackett. "Survivors are still reeling from the loss of their loved ones. Their homes, their once-vibrant neighborhoods are filled with mud. Many have been reduced to rubble."

Typhoon Ketsana hit the Philippines on Saturday, September 24, dumping a month's worth of monsoon rain in 12 hours. Wednesday, September 30, a series of earthquakes rocked Sumatra in Indonesia, and Samoa and Tonga in the south Pacific. Later that week monsoon rains in southern India caused flooding worse than any seen in that country in at least 60 years. Current reports say as many as 2.5 million people have been affected by the floods. Finally, a week after the first storm, Typhoon Parma began its slow march over the Philippines, this time sparing Manila, but soaking rural lands to the north.

CRS and our partners continue to search for pockets of survivors yet to be reached by aid workers. "Villagers are still out there, waiting for help," says Yudi Wiryawan, emergency response leader for CRS Indonesia.

North of Padang city in Sumatra, Indonesia, where two earthquakes—followed by mudslides due to heavy rain—left widespread devastation, CRS has found thousands of people in small farming villages living in the front yards of their quake-shattered homes.

"They didn't know people were looking for them, trying to help them," says one Caritas team leader. CRS distributed much-needed tarpaulins to hundreds of families who are using the tarps, along with wood and sheet metal they have salvaged, to create temporary shelters. The tarps were the first aid the area received from anyone.

"The stories we're hearing are horrible," says Silvia Holzer, a member of the international Caritas response team in Padang. "We were at the hospital, and a man there was trapped under the quake rubble. He sawed his own leg off to escape."

CRS is continuing the search to the north, sending out teams every day to navigate the rural, flooded roads and meet with villagers to ask them what their needs are so we can effectively respond. CRS plans to provide temporary shelter, tools for rebuilding and hygiene supplies like soap to over 10,000 families in villages north of Padang.

A teenager trudges through wet, mud-soaked ground.

A teenager trudges through wet, mud-soaked ground on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

"Thousands of people have been displaced," says Yenni Suryani, country team leader in the CRS Indonesia office. "Some took refuge in undamaged mosques or other public buildings, but most preferred to stay in the open for fear of aftershocks."

'Astronomical Damage'

CRS is assisting victims of Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, who fled their homes following massive flooding caused by the initial storm as it swept across the main island of Luzon, claiming the lives of approximately 300 people. CRS, with our partner Caritas Philippines, is providing thousands of families with immediate food aid—rice, canned goods, noodles and vegetable oil—as well as emergency supplies such as blankets, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets, soap and more.

Sanda Richtmann, CRS emergency coordinator for Asia, told CNN, "The area of Manila is still in great need. Some areas around the city are still underwater. Our resources need to be stretched to respond to the needs there, and in the more rural sections in the north of the island of Luzon, which was heavily impacted as well. CRS is helping 30,000 people in greater Manila, but the needs are great. Many people are staying with relatives or in Church centers. We're working quickly to respond to their needs."

More than 300 volunteer college students and faculty from St. Paul University worked 8 to 10 hours per day to package essential supplies such as cooking utensils, dishes and cups, towels and clothes for some 10,000 families.

CRS is also responding in Vietnam, where Typhoon Ketsana hit Tuesday, killing dozens of people and flooding towns and villages along the nation's coastline. CRS acted immediately by working with our education partners to provide life jackets to children in the most heavily flooded areas.

"We'll now work with our partners to look closely at what the needs are in the towns and villages hardest hit by flooding and strong winds," says Andrew Wells-Dang, CRS country manager in Vietnam. Many people have lost the roofs off their houses, or in some cases, their entire houses.

In Samoa, an earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed more than 150 people and flattened villages in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. CRS is working with Caritas Australia to assist our Catholic Church partner Caritas Samoa, a social service agency that was founded in 2008.

Peter Bendonelli, chairman of the board of Caritas Samoa, says the onrush of water caused "astronomical damage." Caritas Samoa is housing 50 families in church buildings and collecting many local donations as well as soliciting outside help.

Finally, in India, CRS and our partners are responding to devastating flooding in two southern states usually prone to drought. According to Indian government officials, it's the first time in 60 years these areas have experienced such extensive floods.

Over 600,000 families are estimated to be affected across 702 villages in 19 districts. Government reports indicate that hundreds of people died as a result of the floods. In addition, nearly 200,000 houses have been completely damaged. The total estimated loss has surpassed $4 million.

"We are still meeting pressing needs and providing lifesaving emergency relief," says Hackett. "But we know this won't be enough. As families begin to rebuild their lives, CRS will be there. We're in this for the long haul."

Liz O'Neill is CRS' communications officer for Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore. Michael Hill, CRS communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa, contributed to this report.

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