In Focus - A Monthly 
On-Line Column

In Focus: A Monthly On-Line Column by Tipper Gore

America Pledges Their Assistance To
Our Neighbors In Central America

The people of Central America have suffered a disaster of Biblical proportions. The pace of their recovery depends, to a large measure, on what we as their neighbors do to help them, and on the long-term involvement of the international community.

Less than a week ago, I led a Presidential Delegation to Central America to witness firsthand the devastation that has resulted from Hurricane Mitch. The scale of the disaster is beyond anything we have ever witnessed. Some claim that this may be the worst natural disaster in recorded history. The human toll from this disaster is immense -- more than ten thousand lives lost and more than one million people homeless. No one in Central America has been untouched by this tragedy.

Our Delegation, which included Senators Chris Dodd (CT), Jeff Bingaman (NM) and Mary Landrieu (LA) and Representatives Gary Ackerman (NY), Jim Kolbe (AZ) and Xavier Becerra (CA), along with USAID Administrator Brian Atwood, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jack Leonard, and Atlanta Braves player Dennis Martinez, a native Nicaraguan, flew into Tegucigalpa, Honduras and went to visit one of the harder hit neighborhoods.

Before the storm, the Manuel Bonilla School served the entire community --when we arrived, it was ankle-deep in mud. We worked side by side with the community leaders and the Delegation members of the Delegation to clean up the school so it could be used as a medical facility. That night, I slept in a tent pitched at a shelter in the Japon School, which housed families whose homes and even neighborhoods had been totally lost. They spoke of when the storm hit. Many had no warning and were caught by surprise. It came so fast that many were trapped in their homes with water up to their chests, trying to escape. I met a woman in the shelter who was six months pregnant and another who was a grandmother caring for her grandchildren. They had lost everything. I met a blind man who barely got out in time. They are now living in one large room, sleeping on mats. Disease is rampant.

The next day in Managua, I visited Ciudad Sandino, a refugee site for more than 1,000 men, women and children whose homes along the river bank are completely destroyed. The conditions they are living in are unimaginable. The government has given them one large plot of land which is divided into small parcels --one per family. Their only shelter is made from sheets of plastic. One small stream trickles through the area, but it is contaminated. They're experiencing outbreaks of both cholera and malaria. Their biggest concerns right now are food, water, and medicine.

The efforts of so many Americans who have taken part in relief activities are a major source of hope for the people of Central America. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. military, private non-profit organizations, churches, corporations, communities and many others have mobilized efforts across the United States to provide goods and services to our neighbors in Central America. It is truly inspiring to see the U.S. response to this crisis, which has been swift and vast across all sectors of our society.

President Clinton announced a relief package of $70 million and authorized me to announce an additional $10 million as part of our investment in the recovery of our neighbor countries in Central America. The President is also looking at additional long term commitments to the region, including the deployment of skilled U.S. disaster experts, Peace Corps volunteers, and others who can work alongside government officials, local groups, and those most immediately affected to aid them in their efforts. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will arrive in the region today.

The President also directed Secretary Rubin to find the best way to provide debt relief and emergency financial aid from the United States and the international community. We have already encouraged international institutions to provide more than $500 million in near-term financial aid, and we are working with them to secure sufficient money for reconstruction.

In response to the pressing issue of Central American immigrants, the President also announced that we intend to extend our stay of deportation through the holidays for citizens of the affected countries living in the U.S. while examining on an urgent basis recommendations for further relief.

These are just a few of many initiatives that are underway or in development. Our nation intends to support and aid our neighbors to the South in the weeks, months, and even years ahead as we all commit ourselves to the long term effort of recovery and reconstruction.

In both Honduras and Nicaragua, even though the sheer enormity of this tragedy was difficult to comprehend, I was struck by the strength and spirit of the people. They are not defeated. They are cleaning up their homes and rebuilding their lives. In Honduras, community leaders have mobilized to help those most in need and to get food and water to the outlying areas. In the make-shift shelters in Managua, many people had tape measures and were measuring foundations for new walls they will build when the materials are available. You can see that this disaster has destroyed their homes --but not their spirits. They will survive. And we will stand with them as they do so.