Mass burials, fears of disease as tsunami toll mounts in Asia

Locally based aid groups go into action

Help From Md.

December 28, 2004|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

From Buddhist monks in Wheaton chanting prayers for the living and dead to Baltimore-based international relief agencies dispatching employees across devastated swaths of South Asia yesterday, Maryland organizations jump-started efforts to help survivors of the tsunamis.

Large relief organizations pledged money, contacted organizations in the affected areas and mobilized employees. Buddhist temples asked members for donations and prayers. And one man quickly set up an organization to help his native Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries.

Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, has hundreds of employees in India, Indonesia and Thailand. It began receiving reports on the extent of the devastation yesterday and said it would donate $500,000 to initial relief efforts.

That money will go toward providing shelter, food and health care for the millions of hardest-hit residents in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, said Ken Hackett, the group's president and chief executive officer.

But Hackett said the agency's contribution is expected to soar once long-term rebuilding in the region begins.

"This could go up into the millions [of dollars] and we're prepared to do it," said Hackett. "The way we're accessing the situation is we're talking millions of people who are affected. So it's probably going to be a lot of rebuilding of homes and restoring people's lives."

As fears of disease, looting and interference in some war-torn regions increased, Maryland-based relief organizations focused on providing clean water, food and shelter to victims to prevent a larger humanitarian disaster.

Still, worries of civil war in Sri Lanka and the Aceh province of Indonesia's Sumatra island are complicating factors.

"That's what makes it even more difficult," said Hackett. "Are you going to have some kind of a temporary pause with the hostilities in Sri Lanka? Or are people going to try to exploit these kinds of situations? I don't know."

Some Maryland groups that lack relief workers in the devastated areas have turned to groups that they've worked with before.

Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief is working with two church groups in India. Employees from those groups have told the Lutheran organization they need an estimated $6.2 million, said Daniel Chelliah, the Lutheran group's director for Asia and the Middle East.

Lutheran World Relief is donating $20,000 initially and hopes to raise $500,000 to $1 million.

"They lost everything, most of these families," Chelliah said. "The casualties and damages are going to be huge. This is going to take some time because it has destroyed completely the infrastructure of the fisherfolk community and the coastal economy."

World Relief, a Baltimore-based evangelical Christian group, is also teaming with two groups in India and Sri Lanka and is sending at least two employees to the region.

David Van Vuuren, vice president of international operations, estimated that the group would spend $200,000 to $300,000. "We'll probably be involved in providing shelter to the most marginalized of these people," said Van Vuuren.

Two Buddhist temples in the Washington suburbs composed largely of immigrant groups have also stepped up to help their homelands.

The Wat Thai Washington D.C. in Silver Spring, a Thai Buddhist temple, collected money to help disaster victims and provided the latest news from Thailand.

"We are trying to help our countrymen as much as we can," said Phra Paladamampol Sudhiro, a Buddhist monk. "We are asking for donations and pooling information from Thailand to pass on to our congregation."

Thais, worried about their relatives, congregated at the temple for news reports via satellite television. Some also came to "tam boon" - a traditional way to achieve merit by offering food and other donations to monks.

At the International Buddhist Center in Wheaton, frequented by many Sri Lankan immigrants, monks held extended chanting and meditation sessions to pray for the earthquake victims, and are collecting donations from local families.

"We are chanting and meditating," said Bhante K Uparatana, the head monk, originally from Sri Lanka. "Chanting for the people who died but not only the dead people but the people who have suffered and the survivors. We need to support them. The last 20 years we had the war and economically the citizens are so weighed down."

That is what weighed on the mind of Rizwan Mowlana of Gaithersburg yesterday as he created Asia Relief, a group dedicated specifically to relief efforts in his native Sri Lanka.

Mowlana said he lost about 30 members of his family in the earthquake, cousins and aunts and uncles who were at the beach in southern Sri Lanka on vacation. The body of one was washed ashore. The rest are missing.

He said he was supposed to go on his annual trip to Sri Lanka this month and probably would have been at his beach house in the south when the earthquake struck.

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