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Donations for Tsunami Victims Pour in to Local Agencies

By Olin Ericksen and Phil Wayne

December 30 -- In the days since a series of killer tsunami's ravaged nearly 12 countries in the Indian Ocean, disaster relief agencies in Santa Monica have been flooded with an outpouring of support unseen since 9/11, local officials said.

More than $300,000 has been received by two Santa Monica agencies since Sunday’s cataclysm, and more money could continue pouring in as the death toll -- which is fast approaching 80,000 -- mounts, agency officials said.

More than $115,000 has been collected by the local Red Cross, while Santa Monica-based International Medical Corps (IMC), a non-profit humanitarian organization that provides aid and health care training to struggling countries, has received nearly $200,000.

"While 9/11 was the largest outpouring we've seen, as the death toll rises, this could be the biggest outpouring of relief ever," said Tom Viscount, a Red Cross official who has been with the agency for 14 years.

“A lot of people are opening up their hearts and their pocketbooks to help us right now,” said Nancy Aossey, IMC’s president and CEO. Much of the money, she said, came in “small donations.”

Compared to past tragedies, Aossey said, the response has been “more generous and more rapid.”

“This particular tragedy seems to resonate with a lot of people who might not traditionally be focused on international causes,” she said.

On Wednesday, IMC was receiving donations at a rate of nearly $10,000 per hour, with the total rising from $160,000 to $200,000 between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., according to agency officials.

In addition to the rising death toll, millions have been left homeless and hundreds of thousands injured since a 9.0 earthquake struck the Indian Ocean early Sunday spawning a series of waves racing at 500 miles per hour toward the coasts of Indonesia, India and Africa.

"By the end of this, we're estimating there could be as many as 100,000 dead," said the Red Cross’ Viscount.

The number of deaths could climb higher during the long-term recovery effort as relief agencies begin battling disease, water shortages and famine, which Viscount said could reach "epidemic" proportions.

With the disaster half a world away, many relief agencies -- including Santa Monica's Red Cross -- will not be sending disaster recovery teams immediately because they are prohibitively expensive, Red Cross officials said. Instead, the agency will fund local response groups already established in the countries to keep initial costs down.

"As there is a need for expertise down the road, we'll be sending teams over," said Viscount, who noted that psychologists will be especially needed. "But right now it’s good to have locals respond, because they know the language, the land, and people respond well to them."

IMC, whose worldwide presence includes workers and volunteers in many of the areas hardest hit by the tsunamis, will also emphasize aid to existing local agencies.

“We’ll certainly be working very closely with the local people that we’ve worked with for years,” said Aossey.

Such a plan could be complicated in the Banda Aceh region of Sumatra, where a lack of electricity, phone service, food, fuel and passable roads have made rescue efforts a daunting challenge, according to the latest reports.

“We will be definitely sending in teams to augment (local agencies), because so much of the infrastructure was destroyed” by the earthquake and resulting tsunamis, Aossey said, adding that ongoing political strife had already impeded efforts to develop local infrastructures.

Describing a scene of “complete chaos,” Aossey said that preliminary reports from the group’s assessment teams in Aceh told of “carnage and debris everywhere.”

“It appears no hospitals are running” because “all the staff are dead or looking for family,” according to reports received by the agency.

The “number of dead is increasing hourly,” the reports added. “People are in shock. They’re too traumatized to bury their dead.”

The IMC assessment team in Aceh is experiencing extreme difficulties reaching troubled areas, with “access and passage very difficult,” said Aossey, who added that the political strife in the region is not expected to impede aid efforts.

“We don’t anticipate any problems,” she said. “I think that the overwhelming magnitude of this tragedy will take precedence” over any political strife in the region. “We haven’t experienced any problems yet.”

Both the Red Cross and IMC are stressing the need for ongoing donations. The donations taken in now are especially important, said Viscount, for they will be needed to fund the long-term recovery effort.

"The problem with the disaster is that people forget about (it)," he said. "They may contribute now, but who knows. Another disaster could strike in the coming weeks, and people’s attention may be diverted."

While most of the local Red Cross donations appear to be coming from Santa Monica, the agency is looking to reach out to a larger audience by helping organize relief events, such as a show by the Rap/Rock group, Linkin Park.

Working with MTV -- which has its West Coast headquarters in Santa Monica -- the Red Cross hopes to raise nearly $100,000 from the show.

Those wishing to donate are cautioned to beware of scams that may crop up to cash in on the tragedy, as happened in the aftermath of 9/11, according to police.

“We encourage people to use organizations that they know well, such as the Red Cross,” said Lt. Frank Fabrega, spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department.

“It’s only been a few days, but there have been no signs of any scams that have popped up” so far, Fabrega said.

Those interested in making donations are encouraged to contact:

American Red Cross of Santa Monica
1450 Eleventh Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401

International Medical Corps
1919 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404

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