In China, Aid Groups Still Hard at Work after Three Earthquakes

Robert Wayne | Contributing Writer | Thursday, April 22, 2010

In China, Aid Groups Still Hard at Work after Three Earthquakes

April 23, 2010

Earthquake relief agencies continue to perform like tireless runners in a humanitarian relay race that began in Haiti, continued into Chile and is now in China.

It is possible that relief efforts could become winded, but so far both non-government and government organizations appear to be in good giving shape.

"There is such a thing as donor and compassion fatigue, which is when we feel overwhelmed with news of disasters and we almost tune it out because it is almost too much for us to bear," said Casey Calamusa, a spokesman for World Vision. 

"But in talking to our folks on the marketing side, there continue to be generous outpouring for all three of these quakes," Calamusa said. "So while there is always concern that people will become jaded or overwhelmed and won't know how to respond, the donors remain (engaged)." 

World Vision and Oxfam are just two of the relief agencies that have sent teams to the China earthquake, which occurred April 14 in Qinghai Province in the northwest part of the country. The quake measured a 6.9 magnitude, according to the U.S. Geological Society, and killed almost 2,200 people. Survivors faced frigid temperatures and even snowfall yesterday. 

"Our assessment team just got back and we plan to respond by launching a longer relief program over the next 24 months," Calamusa said. World Vision plans to provide meals, quilts, housing subsidies and child-friendly kids that include toys and school supplies.

World Vision has also raised $100 million to help Haiti, providing blankets, eight health clinics and clean water, and millions more for Chile, where the Christian children's charity has 100 workers living.

The American Red Cross, which has raised $400 million for Haitian earthquake relief and $10 million for Chile, is working with the Chinese Red Cross to provide aid to the mountainous area where the quake killed more than 2,000 and injured 100,000, said Alex Mahoney, Red Cross disaster response manager for Asia. 

"A lot have been left homeless (near the Chinese quake) and the problem has been augmented because of the weather, which has been terrible," Mahoney said. "It is a mountainous region where temperatures overnight are below freezing. Plus there is snow and rain. Also, some relief workers have gotten altitude sickness, so it's a really difficult situation, even more than any earthquake already is." 

All major roads and bridges have been restored in the quake area, allowing aid to come in and the evacuation of the severely injured, Mahoney said, adding that 35,000 tents have been set up and food and medical supplies are flowing in. 

"Power is restored, so things are moving now. But there's still a lot of work to do," he said. 

More evidence that the stamina of relief efforts remains high: governmental donations for the China quake include $60 million from Saudi Arabia, $2 million from the United Kingdom, $5 million from Japan, $800,000 from Germany and $500,000 from the United States, $200,000 from Vietnam and Singapore and $100,000 from Poland, according to China's embassy in Washington, D.C. 

Private international businesses operating in China are also contributing relief funds, including $715,000 from Citigroup and $100,000 from the French utility Suez. Pfizer pharmaceutical company is donating medicine, according to the New York Times. 

"I've been doing this for awhile and I don't think compassion fatigue is a major problem," Mahoney said, adding that the American Red Cross has pledged $50,000 to China even though the country has not requested international Red Cross help. "There has been a huge outpouring for Haiti and we have received support for Chile. If China asks, then there will be support for that as well." 

Mahoney and Calamusa agreed it is unusual for China to request outside help - the country attempts to manage natural disasters on its own. That was not the case, however, with the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed more than 87,000. Both World Vision and the Red Cross continue to provide relief for that quake-devastated area. 

Haiti also will require years of rebuilding, said Calamusa, who returned from Port-au-Prince last week. 

"No doubt you're looking at multiple years of recovery," he said. "When I was just there it looks like a scene from an end-of-the-world movie. Rubble everywhere. We need to clear it out and build it better so it doesn't happen again." 

The structural integrity of buildings makes a huge difference between life and death during earthquakes, which partially explains why nearly 220,000 died in Haiti, where the quake registered 7.0, while the Chile quake registered a massive 8.8 and killed far fewer (estimated 500). More modern building techniques decreased the damage in Chile, although Calamusa said recent rains have contributed to homes collapsing in rural areas.

A "lesser" quake does not mean less relief is required, Calamusa said. 

"If you were affected, any earthquake is devastating to you," he said. 

That message seems to be getting across as relief efforts continue without compassion fatigue. 

"People are compassionate. They will always help," Mahoney said.