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United States' key fund for natural disasters drained by tsunami aid

WASHINGTON—The $350 million pledged by the United States for aid to tsunami-battered Indian Ocean nations will deplete most of the government's key emergency fund for helping victims of natural disasters around the world, U.S. officials said Monday.

The commitment of most of the $384.9 million International Disaster and Famine Assistance Account, which is administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development, underlines the enormity of last week's catastrophe.

"We probably have not managed a natural disaster of this magnitude before," James Kunder, assistant administrator of USAID and a veteran of numerous relief operations, said in a telephone interview.

The closest parallel to the tsunami that wreaked devastation from Indonesia to Somalia may be Hurricane Mitch, which shattered parts of several Central American countries in 1998, he said. Three months after the hurricane, the United States had given $300 million in aid.

While some of $350 million for the Asian disaster will come from other funds, most will be drawn from the International Disaster and Famine Assistance Account, U.S. officials said.

The $350 million doesn't include contributions to the relief operations by the Department of Defense, which was providing 12,600 service personnel, an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault vessel, a hospital ship and dozens of helicopters.

A Pentagon spokeswoman was unable to give an amount for the military's contributions, which were being covered from a special Department of Defense fund for humanitarian disasters.

U.S. officials said the USAID's emergency disaster fund could be replenished by moving funds from other accounts, but Kunder said it was likely that the agency also would seek a supplemental appropriation from Congress.

The Bush administration was also expected to seek funds from Congress to help underwrite long-term tsunami recovery efforts, such as the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure.

More than 145,000 people were killed by huge walls of water that swept across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa after a massive Dec. 26 earthquake off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The death toll is expected to surpass 150,000.

The Bush administration initially pledged $15 million in aid, drawing criticism of an inadequate response. It raised the amount to $35 million, and then on Dec. 31 to $350 million.

As of Sunday, $37.3 million of the $350 million was committed to efforts to deliver drinking water, food, temporary shelters and other immediate help for an estimated 3 million to 5 million people left homeless, hungry and facing disease.

Kunder said he expected funds to be dispersed at a faster rate in coming days as deliveries of aid were being stepped up and U.S. assessment teams completed their surveys of the greatest immediate needs.

USAID's main priorities now are improving onsite coordination of relief deliveries, preventing outbreak of epidemics and getting cash flowing into crippled economies, he said.

As an example, Kunder said, about $10 million has been committed in Sri Lanka to "cash for work" programs to help stimulate local economies and bring prices down.

The largest amounts of U.S. emergency aid have gone to relief operations in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two worst hit nations. Other recipients included India, Thailand, the Maldives and Somalia.

Channeled through national and international relief agencies, U.S. funds have been used for the purchase and delivery of such materials as fresh water, water storage containers, plastic shelter sheeting, blankets, mosquito netting, medicines and clothing.

Last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, suggested that the administration include funds for long-term tsunami recovery in a new financing package that it's expected to seek later this month for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that could top $100 billion.

Another option, he proposed in letters to Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, would be for the administration to ask Congress to redirect to tsunami relief operations unspent funds approved for Iraq reconstruction efforts.

Powell rejected that idea just before departing Sunday for a tour of the region.

"There is a need for those (Iraq reconstruction) funds and those funds are now being obligated and spent, and so that is not, in my judgment anyway, a source for tsunami relief funding," Powell said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050103 TSUNAMI donate, 20050103 TSUNAMI military

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