Disaster relief is on the way

Quake: A shipment of medical supplies from New Windsor will help thousands in Iran.

January 06, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

When Rosella Reese saw the devastating images of an earthquake-ravaged town in Iran flash across her television screen, she knew she would soon be packing relief supplies.

Within a few days, Reese and several other workers at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor have helped put together a $550,000 shipment of medicines, vitamins and bandages that is to leave the western Carroll County town today, bound for Bam in southern Iran. The 20-foot-long cargo container will be shipped by air and should arrive by week's end.

"I knew what I would be doing as soon as I heard there was an earthquake," said Reese, who has been packing relief supplies at the warehouse for nearly 18 years. "We want to get this shipment out as soon as possible."

The earthquake Dec. 26 killed more than 30,000 people in Bam - about a third of the population of the city 630 miles southeast of Tehran. The 6.6-magnitude quake occurred in the early morning, injuring nearly as many people as it killed and leveling nearly 70 percent of the city's homes and buildings.

Church World Service, an international relief agency based in New York, immediately began calling its members, including the New Windsor center and its partner, Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., an association of a dozen faith-based relief groups, to support disaster response efforts. Although many of the center's employees were on vacation during the holidays, it quickly brought its staff together.

"We have all seen the pictures from this catastrophe," said Donna Derr, associate director for emergency response with Church World Service. "Shelter needs are well under way, but the need for medical assistance and supplies of clean water remain."

With what she called a sense of urgency, Virginia Long, another packer, pulled supplies from towering shelves in the cavernous warehouse yesterday and put them into cartons that Reese packed and weighed.

"We know what has to be done, and that every bottle will make a difference," Long said.

By midafternoon, Reese had packed more than 50 boxes. She expected to fill 25 more before the shipment leaves the warehouse today. Standing in front of a scale, she worked quickly and efficiently, making sure each carton had the right number of medications and weighed exactly 65 pounds.

"I have to have the right amount of each thing, and I keep all these numbers in my head," she said.

Bandages that church groups across the nation had made by hand from recycled linens topped off cartons filled with aspirin, vitamins and salves. The neatly tied bundles fill the boxes, keeping contents from shifting during shipment and later providing a sturdy, protective cover for sterile bandages.

The service center has designed a standard medicine box that can be prepared quickly, said Kathleen Campanella, public information coordinator.

"Everything that leaves here is used in one way or another," said Campanella. "Even the cardboard boxes are sturdy enough to use again. We pack to get the maximum amount and correct weight."

The contents of each box can treat as many as 1,000 adults and children for as long as three months, Campanella said. The 100 boxes shipped today could make a vital difference in the health and hygiene of about 100,000 earthquake victims, Derr said.

"Clearly, this is the early relief stage, and we are looking at providing the most basic needs," Derr said. "This is one small step that will allow us to make a full assessment later on."

Shipping by air will cost Church World Service about $30,000, she said. Nearly all of the medications and other supplies were donated to Interchurch Medical Assistance, said Vickie Johnson, communications manager.

"We have all the material we need on hand," said Loretta Wolf, director of service industries. "It is just a matter of coordinating, moving and working hard to keep things going. We do a lot of critical emergency packing, and we are always ready to respond."

Items are inventoried and stored in the 72,000-square-foot warehouse on the Brethren Center campus.

"This is just a warehouse, but it does incredibly vital work for people around the world," Johnson said.

Interchurch Medical Assistance had its staff prepare 25 cartons of antibiotics and prescription medications that had been donated by its pharmaceutical partners.

"So much has been lost that we are sending the basics in first-aid supplies, things needed for basic care and everyday illnesses," Johnson said. "Then there are also boxes of antibiotics and items that can help people cope with impurities in water and problems associated with living in shelters."

Tens of thousands of people are homeless in Bam, and the quake destroyed the city's water and sanitation infrastructure. Nearly 80 aftershocks have toppled ruined homes.

"Our folks on the ground in Iran said people are really struggling emotionally, too," Derr said. "They see people cowering from aftershocks."

Interchurch Medical Assistance has been one of the first international relief agencies to respond to natural disasters. The agency assisted with earthquake aid in Turkey in 1999 and led several hurricane relief efforts in the United States. It secured a $25 million grant from the U.S. government nearly three years ago to help re-establish health-care programs in the Congo.

Interchurch Medical Assistance will continue to work in Iran if needed, Johnson said.

"This is just the first call for resources," she said. "There will be extensive rebuilding. We will send whatever is appropriate as they assess the medical needs, and we will continue to provide assistance to areas where people have ended up after the quake."

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