- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

U.S. corporations have pledged more than $80 million in cash and supplies to help victims of the tsunami disaster in Asia and Africa, as other relief promised by the World Bank and governments around the globe topped $500 million yesterday.

“Whenever we have a disaster, corporations and Americans have stepped up to the plate,” Red Cross spokeswoman Michelle Hudgins said. “We couldn’t do our jobs without them.”

While the corporate donations eclipse the initial $35 million promised by the U.S. government, American officials have seized the leadership role in relieving areas hit hardest by the earthquake-fueled tsunami that has killed more than 117,000 people in coastal regions of the Indian Ocean.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday said the United Nations has been added to the core group of relief countries, which was created by President Bush and is made up of the United States, India, Australia and Japan.

The State Department also said U.S. officials will be involved in a conference next Friday of international donors being organized by European governments.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said more than 30 countries had come forward offering to help the relief effort so far. He stressed that, in addition to the deaths, about a half million people were injured by the tsunami, about a million displaced and 5 million need immediate assistance.

Private companies are donating everything from cash to diapers, antibiotics and creams to mask the stench of decaying bodies. The outpouring might be the greatest surge in donations to the Red Cross and other groups since the September 11 attacks.

Among the biggest givers are the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., which is giving $10 million in cash and $25 million worth of drugs; Coca-Cola Co., donating $10 million; Exxon Mobil Corp., giving $5 million; and Citigroup Inc., contributing $3 million. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $3 million.

With wells and other fresh water contaminated by seawater, debris and sewage, drinkable water is perhaps the most badly needed item. The U.S. military continued airlifting rice and water purifiers into the hardest-hit areas yesterday.

As aid also flowed from the world’s governments — Spain has approved $68 million and Australia $27 million — meetings of Mr. Bush’s core group focused on ensuring that the relief efforts are not duplicated.

Speaking at the Thai and Sri Lankan embassies in Washington, Mr. Powell said the United States is working with the United Nations but also “with other international agencies, with our friends in the European Union and elsewhere, to bring all of the assets of the international community to bear on this problem.”

“The principal challenge is in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, but also Thailand as well, and that’s where we’ll be focusing our efforts,” he said. “We are in close touch, of course, with the Indians and all of the other nations that were affected … and of course, Thailand has some challenges with respect to all of the foreign tourists who may have been lost.”

The White House said Mr. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s younger brother, will leave Sunday on a trip to areas of Asia and Africa most affected by the tsunami to survey the damage.

A congressional delegation is set to make its own visit next week, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has announced plans to introduce legislation to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami when Congress returns to session next month.

“The infrastructure of daily life is simply gone,” said Mr. Hyde, Illinois Republican, of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami, including costal Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. “The challenges of coping with suffering on this magnitude are almost unfathomable.”

Although the dollar amount that the new legislation will seek was not clear yesterday, one senior congressional staffer speculated that the “appropriate legislative vehicle for the Hyde initiative might well be the supplemental spending request that the president is expected to make next year to finance Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

The administration has faced criticism that its response to the Asian disaster has been slow and that U.S. aid so far has not been enough.

Asked about such complaints yesterday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher bluntly told reporters: “Let me make absolutely clear that we don’t accept those kinds of criticisms.

“Any implications the United States is not being generous, is not forthcoming, is not active, is not, in fact, leading the way, is just plain wrong,” he said, adding that similar criticism has been wrongly hurled at the United States during previous relief efforts.

As vital supplies arrive at major airports in the disaster zone, Mr. Boucher said officials are focused on logistical problems of getting goods to people in coastal areas and in difficult to reach spots such as civil war-torn Aceh province in Indonesia.

“We’re going to have C-130s [military cargo planes] that can get into some places, including Aceh,” he said, adding that India and Australia are sending helicopters into some areas.

Meanwhile, drug makers with offices or plants in the region have sent employees out with antibiotics, nutritional supplements, infant formula, baby food and other supplies, and employees of such companies as Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Marriott International hotels in the region are delivering bottled water, food and other supplies.

“I think it’s a humanitarian instinct,” said New York public-relations analyst Howard Rubenstein, who added that the “byproduct would certainly be good PR for the corporation, and more importantly for our country.”

Some companies that have suffered bad press recently are jumping to make donations.

Computer Associates International Inc., which has been dealing with an accounting scandal, put up $200,000. Pfizer and another drug company, Merck Inc., which chipped in $250,000 and medicine, recently saw a rash of stories about increased risks of heart problems for patients taking their painkillers.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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