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Chile earthquake a test for aid agencies

February 28, 2010 |  5:05 am
Disaster relief officials Saturday were faced with a daunting mission, trying to arrange assistance to victims of Chile's massive earthquake while maintaining full-throttle operations in Haiti.

That should not be a problem for large organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have the resources to send emergency responders and humanitarian aid to a number of hot spots. But the same may not be true for smaller groups whose focus is on long-term rebuilding efforts.

"Organizations like ours are able to coordinate on multiple disasters," said Red Cross spokesman Eric Porterfield, citing as an example the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China's Sichuan province in May 2008.

In the month and a half since a magnitude 7 quake devastated Haiti, he said, the Red Cross has raised $322 million for its efforts there. A separate emergency fund could be directed for Chile, Porterfield said.

The medical relief group Doctors Without Borders already has dispatched a team to Chile. That organization too is heavily involved in its mission in Haiti, "but that doesn't mean we won't be able to respond to another natural disaster," spokeswoman Emily Linendoll said.

And so Chile's immediate needs after the quake are likely to be met.

But this month, the U.S. Agency for International Development had alerted some relief groups that government funding for foreign disaster assistance could be affected by the cost of operations in Haiti.

"It's going to be hard," said Farshad Rastegar, head of Relief International, a Los Angeles-based humanitarian agency. "A lot of resources have been devoted to Haiti, and there has been a shrinkage of the capacity to respond."

Many smaller aid organizations like Relief International focus on long-term issues such as infrastructure rebuilding. They also address international crises that don't always make major headlines, such as the refugee problem in Pakistan. Those efforts have been affected by the huge amount of resources directed to Haiti, Rastegar said.

Another question weighing on relief organizations is whether Americans will open their checkbooks to help Chileans so soon after Haiti.

"The nongovernmental organizations have been tapped out and stretched by the tough economy," said Thomas Tighe, president and chief executive of Direct Relief International, a privately funded humanitarian health organization based in Goleta, Calif.

"I'm not sure if there was another Haiti next week that people could do the same," he said. "But our assumption is that if there is a precise need and compelling case, people will step up."

--Shari Roan
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