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Relief groups launch unprecedented effort in U.S.

BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala.—American and international relief organizations that have traditionally targeted humanitarian efforts at disaster victims in impoverished nations have launched unprecedented relief measures in the United States, saying the devastation from Hurricane Katrina has persuaded them to step in.

In this hurricane-pummeled shrimping village in the southwest corner of Alabama near the Mississippi state line, tractor trailers carrying 8,000 cans of turkey, 400 bales of blankets and thousands of pounds of other supplies rolled up this week and set up shop at a community center-turned-shelter.

The donations came from the Mennonite Central Committee, a global organization based in Pennsylvania that for 80 years has responded primarily to African famines, Indian earthquakes and other Third World disasters.

Foreign-aid group officials say they are using procedures developed from decades of experience responding to humanitarian disasters abroad to provide relief to millions suffering from the effects of Katrina.

Oxfam, one of the world's leading aid organizations with affiliates in 12 countries including the United States, says that for the first time in its 35-year history it is responding to a disaster on U.S. soil.

"The assumption has always been that the U.S. has the capacity to respond to emergencies at the local, state and national level," said Oxfam spokesman Steve Greene. "We had to reassess that assumption and begin doing direct relief in Mississippi."

Greene said survey teams sent down immediately after the storm reported that rural communities, where a large percentage of residents had been living in poverty before the storm, had taken multiple blows from the storm.

"These are farmers, Latinos, migrant workers, overlooked or at the margins of society anyway," he said. "They are particularly hard-hit because their houses were not well-constructed and even if they were able to salvage some of their crops the markets for those crops—the casinos and hotels—evaporated overnight."

The Mexican government has also responded to the plight of Gulf Coast residents. A Mexican Army convoy and a Navy amphibious warship are on their way to New Orleans, the first time the Mexican military has operated north of the Rio Grande since Mexico's loss of California and New Mexico in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.

The Mexican forces include 195 unarmed soldiers with helicopters, 14 trucks, a mobile surgical unit, emergency personnel, 3 tons of purified water, food and two mobile kitchens that can cook three hot meals a day for 7,000 people.

The Mennonite Central Committee is responding to Katrina in partnership with its sister group, Mennonite Disaster Service, which has handled rebuilding projects in the United States after wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes—among them Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 1969.

"With the scope of this storm there was plenty for both of us," said Mennonite Central Committee spokesman Larry Guengerich.

The groups decided to focus on Bayou La Batre, the tiny village once known as the seafood capital of the United States and made famous in the movie "Forrest Gump," because it was clear the remote community had gotten no attention.

Roughly two-thirds of the 3,000 residents of the community are Hispanic or Vietnamese, many of them living in poorly constructed dwellings that were overwhelmed by the flooding. The storm tossed the 100-foot shrimp boats onto docks and the shoreline, piling them on top of each other. The aluminum-sided seafood processing plants, struggling for a decade to compete with foreign imports, were mangled. And the oyster beds, local officials say, will likely be ruined by leaking diesel fuel and other contaminants.

Outside the community center on Wednesday, volunteers unloaded pallets of canned ham, stacked cases of water and sorted through mountains of donated clothing. Inside, 200 families took refuge from the heat.

After the immediate needs of hurricane victims are met, Guengerich said, his group will begin working with communities to rebuild homes and their local economies, a process that will take years.

"We don't do hit-and-run response," he said. "We take the long view. We will be here long after the TV cameras leave."

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(Worden reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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

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