November 11, 1998

Two years ago, in a barrio in Managua, Nicaragua, I met with a group of women who proudly showed me what small amounts of credit had meant to them. Some were selling clothes and mosquito nets they'd made. One had opened a bakery. I have thought of these women many times in recent days as I have read and heard about the horrors facing their country.

Hurricane Mitch struck Central America just as many countries there had entered a new era. After long periods of conflict, they had worked hard to rebuild their societies, strengthen their fledgling democracies and expand their economies.

Before Mitch, these nations were making great strides toward improving the lives of their people. Now, they face massive devastation, including threats to their democracies. They need our aid, and we must respond, not only for humanitarian reasons but also because it is in our country's best political and economic interests.

Every family in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador has been touched by this tragedy. More than 10,000 have died, and thousands more remain unaccounted for. Hundreds of thousands are without food, medical supplies or safe drinking water, and nearly 2 million have been forced from their homes.

Transportation is a nightmare. Every bridge across Honduras and Nicaragua is gone. Major cash crops, such as bananas and coffee, have been wiped out -- plants uprooted and soil destroyed. According to estimates by the U.S. Agency for International Development, decades of investment in infrastructure have been lost.

Climate experts predict that ferocious hurricanes like Mitch are typical of the disasters we can expect in the future as a result of global climate change. The drought caused by last year's El Nino multiplied the impact of this particular storm. In just five days, 50 inches of rain fell in some areas -- more than many places receive in an entire year. Vegetation that normally would have protected the population against mud slides had died because of the drought.

As soon as the extent of the damage became clear, the President directed members of his administration to make every effort to provide relief to the victims. And citizens all across the country collected food, clothing and contributions for the victims.

At this stage in the process, the United States has contributed $70 million to meet the most urgent needs, and more is on the way. The U.S. military has airlifted blankets, plastic sheeting, water containers and other supplies to the affected countries.

U.S. military helicopters and cargo aircraft are in the area, helping rescue the stranded and delivering supplies to remote locations. The Department of Agriculture has begun sending food supplies, including 20,000 metric tons of wheat, rice, beans and oil.

The threat of cholera from the contaminated water supplies is very real. To help minimize the risk of disease, hundreds of our Peace Corps volunteers are receiving additional training specifically to deal with the anticipated health crisis.

USAID disaster specialists are in the region, coordinating our efforts with local organizations. And hundreds of military personnel are already helping rebuild roads, schools, bridges and other vital damaged infrastructure.

As I write this, Tipper Gore is in Honduras and Nicaragua, leading a Presidential Mission to deliver supplies and take part in disaster relief efforts.

Next week, I, too, will travel to the region. In addition to visits to Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- trips that were canceled in September because of Hurricane Georges -- and already-planned stays in El Salvador and Guatemala, I have added stops in Nicaragua and Honduras. There, on behalf of the President, I will assure the victims of this tragedy that, even after the immediate crisis is over, the United States will stand by its commitment to help with the massive reconstruction effort that lies ahead.

Each decision to visit or offer aid reflects both our country's values and our long-standing interests in Central America. Many Americans have family and close ties in this region. But we are not alone in our efforts. Countries including Mexico, Japan, Canada, the nations of the European Union and Taiwan and organizations around the world, such as the United Nations, the International Red Cross, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, have stepped in as well.

The outpouring of support and assistance has been generous, but it is almost impossible for us to comprehend how desperate the need is. People in this country have always been eager to help in emergencies. Here's how you can help now:

Because of transportation constraints, relief organizations need contributions of money more than supplies. For a list of organizations operating in Central America that can use your help, call USAID at 1-202-712-4810 or visit its web site at

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at