- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Volunteers from throughout the region have flocked to Washington-area relief agencies as donations continue to arrive from across the country to help victims of the killer tsunami in southern and Southeast Asia.

The Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team is ready to travel to the region’s devastated coastlines, as are several Inova Health Systems doctors who are members of the International Search and Rescue Response Team.

However, it is still not certain who will be called upon to help.

“We have had a number of people volunteering, but we don’t know when or if they will go,” said Cecile Sorra, spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore. “Right now, it is more important to assess the needs than just send people and not know what they should be doing or where is the area of greatest need.”

More than 52,000 people were killed by the tsunami on Sunday morning, spawned by a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The death count is expected to increase because the survivors — including the thousands injured and millions left homeless by the wave surges — now face diseases created by contaminated water supplies, no sanitation and other post-disaster problems.

The International Red Cross and other emergency-response teams are already in India and Indonesia providing aid and planning how best to deploy volunteers.

Peace Corps volunteers also could go to India, Indonesia and at least nine other nations damaged by the tsunami, but no decisions have been made.

The agency has a group of former volunteers, known as the Crisis Corps, who rely on their experience and acquired knowledge of language and culture to help after natural disasters.

“We’ll know a little more by [today] or in a few more days,” said Jennifer Borgen, an agency spokeswoman.

Miss Borgen said the volunteers do not arrive immediately after a disaster to provide “blood and water,” but provide more long-term help such as reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The United Nations has launched what it calls an unprecedented relief effort. The U.S. Agency for International Development is sending a 21-member disaster-assistance response team to help with sanitation and to provide other relief efforts.

Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, has medical teams on the ground in Bangladesh,India, Malaysia, Burma,Sri Lanka and Thailand that are also assessing emergency needs and providing aid.

Although donations to relief organizations are quickly accumulating, officials are concerned about the provisions because they sometimes take weeks to reach victims.

The Sri Lanka Association of Greater Washington collected $2,500 in fewer than eight hours on Monday.

“It’s really phenomenal,” said Nihal Goonawardene, 59, the association’s president. “It comes from local peopleand friends across the country.”

Rizwan Mowlana, who has at least 30 relatives missing in Sri Lanka, said he has been overwhelmed by the response to the donation fund he set up on Monday. His Gaithersburg home has been inundated with donations of clothes, blankets, bicycles and toys.

“It will take three weeks to get there if we’re lucky,” said Mr. Mowlana, 49, who heads up the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Maryland and Virginia. “The best thing to do at this time is [to send] cash donations because it is quickest to reach them.”

Lutheran World Relief in Baltimore so far has received about $50,000.

An official at the Buddhist Vihara Society in Northwest said a steady stream of donors has called — including somebody from as far away as Hawaii.

Embassies of the devastated countries set up relief funds yesterday, too. The Royal Thai Embassy opened a bank account for people in the Thai community who wish to donate money.

“We have about 100 Thai associations and more than 100 Buddhist temples that will be informed that they can send money to the embassy or transfer money to the embassy account,” said Kasit Piromya, 60, ambassador of Thailand to the United States.

“We have a lot of needs,” he said. “This is best way to meet them at the moment.”