- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

President Bush yesterday warned Americans not to allow the disaster in the Indian Ocean to “shortchange” the needs of U.S. charities, as he pledged that the United States would uphold a long-term commitment to the tsunami-hit nations of Asia and Africa.

After an Oval Office briefing by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who told the president that the devastation he saw in the hardest-hit villages on his recent tour reminded him of the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, Mr. Bush vowed that his administration will fulfill its “duty” to aid the area.

“This is one of these projects that’s not going to happen overnight. The intense scrutiny may dissipate, and probably will, but our focus has got to stay on this part of the world,” the president told several hundred U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) workers and leaders of charitable organizations gathered in the Reagan Building.

“We have a duty. We have made a commitment, and our commitment is a long-term commitment to help these good folks in the part of the world that got affected get back on their feet.”

Although Mr. Bush continued to urge Americans to donate money to aid millions of people left homeless after a tsunami killed more than 150,000 people and ravaged countries from Indonesia to Kenya, he said those donations should “not replace the ongoing contributions” to U.S. charities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

“I do want to remind our fellow citizens, as you donate money to the tsunami relief effort, make sure you continue to contribute to NGOs, because those groups — we still have problems in other parts of our country and other parts of the world,” he said.

“You should view the tsunami relief effort as extra help, to help solve the problem, so that we don’t shortchange the compassionate needs — the needs for compassion elsewhere in our country and the world.”

International aid organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Catholic Relief Services collected millions of dollars in the final days of 2004.

The Bush administration spurred further giving by signing legislation last week that grants a tax break to Americans who contribute to the effort this month. Under the law, tsunami relief donations made by the end of January can be deducted from 2004 taxable income.

The White House said $87 million of the $350 million pledged by the U.S. government has been spent so far on relief efforts, which have been hampered by the devastation of infrastructure throughout the region.

Although Mr. Bush left open the possibility that the United States could increase its aid, he said he wants to ensure “the dollars are demand-driven.”

“In other words, the key is to provide immediate relief, which we are doing, and then to work with governments and the United Nations to assess the needs — the intermediate-term needs and the long-term needs — to make sure the money that is available actually achieves a coordinated objective. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing,” Mr. Bush said.

Just days after the Dec. 26 earthquake that caused the massive tsunami, Mr. Powell said the final cost might top $1 billion.

Lawmakers and congressional aides agree and plan to submit an emergency budget request in late January or early February. The emergency budget request for tsunami relief is expected to include extra funding to cover the cost of operating the Pentagon’s military assets in the region — estimated at $6 million a day.

Today, representatives of more than 80 countries will meet in Geneva to draft a plan to employ the $5 billion pledged by governments and international organizations. Rescue efforts are giving way in the stricken region to more formidable tasks, such as rebuilding homes and dealing with emotional devastation, Mr. Bush said.

“In other words, we’ve been focused on the relief effort; now we’re beginning to focus on rehabilitation and rebuilding,” he said.

Mr. Bush praised USAID workers and charity representatives, saying, “All of you are playing an important role in that compassionate response. … The men and women of USAID have been at the center of that response.”

The president later met with officials from the Commerce Department and the Department of the Interior to discuss ways to improve the early warning systems for future Indian Ocean tsunamis.

He also received an update on government efforts to expand the tsunami warning system so it would cover both coasts of the United States and countries around the world.

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