After the Flood

With disease looming, the world launches a massive relief effort. Will the aid reach the victims in time?

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KEMAL JUFRI / POLARIS FOR TIME

Survivors fight for their share of water and noodles distributed in boxes in Indonesia two days after the tsunami hit

The small village of Velankanni, on the southeastern coast of India, is thought to be a holy place. It draws Christian pilgrims to a Roman Catholic basilica there, as well as Muslims and Hindus seeking blessings and good fortune. In Velankanni, Christians, Muslims and Hindus together prayed for their dead last week--and all the while struggled desperately to save the living. In the wake of the tsunami, at least 75,000 people, half the population of the area affected, have crowded into hastily built refugee camps that became instant incubators for disease. Critical supplies--medicine, potable water, disinfectant--are sorely lacking. In one camp set up in a Hindu temple, 2,500 people are sleeping and eating next to their own excrement. Four days after the tsunami hit, some 4,000 people in Velankanni were already being treated for vomiting and diarrhea, according to the head of a local health charity. Relief workers fear an imminent outbreak of cholera, gastroenteritis and hepatitis B. "The situation is very, very serious," says Dr. V. Ramani, director of the Gandheepam Global Foundation, an Indian health nongovernmental organization (NGO). "The government has to start moving to the villages [instead of] expecting people to come to them."

For the entire world--governments, large NGOs, private charities and individuals moved to contribute to the massive relief efforts under way--getting to the villages is now the order of the day. In the first week after the tsunami, governments around the world pledged $2 billion in assistance to the devastated region, though in reality no one knows what the total cost of relief will be in the end. While the Bush Administration took heat for initially pledging only $15 million--a sum that has since increased to $350 million--private charities and relief agencies say they are stunned by the level of contributions from individual donors. During the first week of the crisis, the American Red Cross received more than $9 million in donations made through a single website, Amazon com Oxfam has raised at least $28 million worldwide and said it may be on track to collect more than it did in the wake of the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine that killed a million people. Pfizer, the large U.S. pharmaceutical company, said it was giving $10 million in cash to relief organizations and an additional $25 million in medicine. Mike Kieran, a spokesman for Save the Children, says that during the genocide in Rwanda 10 years ago--in which 800,000 people were murdered--the immediate outpouring of donations to relief agencies was generous, "but it doesn't even come close to this."

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