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  FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT TSUNAMI RELIEF.  
   
   
 

The day after Christmas brought news of a giant wave of water crashing into the coast of several Southeast Asian countries. "Bummer," we thought, between football games. News caught up with reality and Americans were stunned to learn that hundreds of thousands were dead or missing, entire towns were washed out and the resulting hunger, thirst and disease could kill even more. An event that was no one's fault and everyone's nightmare compelled people to act.

Susan Kim is news editor for Disaster News Network, a Web site that reports on U.S. response to disasters. She has traveled to cover hurricanes in Florida, wildfires in New Mexico, tornadoes in too many states to remember and conferences all over full of disaster experts. Obviously, over the last week, since the tsunami disaster, she has been very busy. Here's a tsunami FAQ answering all those nagging questions you've had.

Hey, can I peel my eyes away from the heart-wrenching footage and actually help someone?

Yes. The best way to help is to donate cash to a reliable responding group. The U.S. Agency for International Development has put together one of the most comprehensive lists of charities.

But, I really, really want to do something hands-on. I mean, I want to ship some bottles of water over to India. Come on, don't they need water?

You don't think they got enough? Seriously, yes, they need water -- clean water and lots of it, fast. But shipping your case of Evian to India will: a) cost a whole bunch, and b) take a whole lot of time. On the other hand, if you hop online and make a credit card donation to a responding group, water can be purchased within the affected country -- and it boosts those shattered economies.

What about clothing donations?

What about them? Don't even think about it. As one Sri Lankan businessman said: "Look at how many of your T-shirts say, 'Made in Sri Lanka.' You can buy a T-shirt in my country for 50 cents. Even now. Don't send us back our own T-shirts. Just keep buying them in the U.S. for $12.95. And wear them yourself. And buy more."

But the church down the street is collecting clothes.

People tend to collect clothes after a disaster. Within three days after the tsunami hit, a brand new relief group was created by very nice people in Gaithersburg, Md., and listed in the well-meaning Washington Post newspaper the very next day. The first day they started collecting clothes, they had more than 100 bags in two hours. Watch out, Sri Lanka! Heads up! Incoming T-shirts!

Why do inappropriate donations cause such a problem?

Next time you're at a party with a disaster response person, ask them to tell you their worst donation story. They all have 'em. Here's one: After Hurricane Mitch hit the Honduras in 1998, 1,200 containers appeared in the Port of Cortez labeled simply "Humanitarian Relief. They contained clothes mixed with food -- much of it spoiled. "There were also goods donated for which instructions were written entirely in English size 13 boots, and Christmas sweatshirts -- all culturally inappropriate items," remembered a U.S.-based responder on the scene, adding. "Also, mouthwash just isn't culturally recognized in many countries."

A lot of these charities are religious, which makes some people a little queasy. Just how, if it all, does religion fit into these groups' relief efforts? Are the Jews passing out yarmulkes with water? Do the Catholics make you say the rosary before lunch?

Any experienced disaster responder from a faith-based group has a personal rule: no evangelizing at a disaster scene. That means you give people what they need -- physical safety and a listening ear -- without preaching. The best faith-based response groups -- those listed at the U.S. AID site, above -- offer disaster relief without regard to the survivors' faith expression. People who DO go out on a disaster site and start preaching, and there are those people, unfortunately, tarnish the reputation of the highly-trained faith-based groups who are trying to help.

Was the U.S. slow to respond or is that just a nasty rumor?

Well, President Bush did interrupt his vacation to pledge an initial $15 million in aid. Maybe his homeland-security-turned-disaster-response experts failed to realize how serious the tsunami tragedy was. Or maybe he was pinching pennies to make sure he can foot the bill for his inauguration festivities, which are projected to cost around $40 million. When you compare Bush's initial $15 million in aid to Spain's pledge of $70 million, the U.S. relief looked, well, paltry at first. But you can stick that magnetic flag back on your minivan because now the U.S. is delivering more aid than any other country.

What's Jeb Bush got to do with it?

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, selected by his brother, has headed over to the tsunami-stricken countries for a firsthand look and, ostensibly, to offer personal comfort to tsunami survivors. Keep in mind, during the hurricanes in the U.S., Jeb Bush shared his very special disaster theology in this actual quote about the hurricanes: "God doesn't follow the linear projections of computer models. This is God's way of telling us that He's almighty, and we're mortal." Wow, wonder what he's going to tell the people over there about God? Here Jeb thought God had dressed up as a hurricane, but all this time God was busy putting on His tsunami costume. Holy weather, Jeb! We'll be watching you!

Why was the media so slow to realize the magnitude of the tsunami? The early death toll seemed unbelievably low, and the American media took a couple days to figure out that stories don't really get much bigger than this.

Honestly? Really? The biggest reason is because news editors take vacations and stick a small staff in there for the holidays. I would have had a story up myself sooner except I was stuffing my pie-hole with holiday food. But there's another reason: Communications out of the affected areas were zilch. Then just a trickle of information started coming. Then the press realized the magnitude.

Could a tsunami happen in the U.S.?

As they say in North Dakota (where they're not worrying about it happening to them) -- "you betcha." There's a far greater chance of tsunami hitting the West Coast than the East Coast -- and that's why the West Coast's warning system is far superior than the East Coast's.

Is it true the loss of life in India would have been far less if a warning system had been in place?

Yes. It's true: The Indian Ocean countries, just like the U.S. Atlantic Coast, bargained that the chances of a tsunami were pretty low. The good news is, both the Indian Ocean region and the U.S. Atlantic seaboard are now talking about better tsunami warning systems.

Until a better warning system is in place, can I really ever enjoy sitting on the beach again?

Yes. Just chain yourself to a tree.

What is the plural of tsunami?

Tsunami. Just tsunami.

Okay, we know how to give wisely now. But what's just the coolest relief fundraising effort so far?

The sex workers in the Ahmednagar district have been donating their day's earnings to the Prime Minister's relief fund, earmarked for southern India. More legally here in the U.S., jazz clubs all over are having fundraising shows, and people standing outside the Ravens football game last weekend donated more than $70,000.

What is just the tackiest name for a giving campaign ever?

"Wave of Giving." No kidding. Really.

What is your new pen name in case people think you're actually having fun writing about this awful disaster?

Tsusan Kim. But, shhhhhhhhhh.

 

Susan Kim has not yet caught a plane to Asia because she wanted to hang around and write for The Black Table.