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Mitch Victims Face Frustrations

November 7, 1998

POSOLTEGA, Nicaragua (AP) _ Survivors of Central America’s worst disaster in memory pleaded for help Friday as anger grew over the slow pace of relief in the devastated countryside.

Doctors rationed out slim medical supplies to injured refugees. Though tons of aid has poured in from across the world for victims of Hurricane Mitch, the region’s fractured road system and limited air transportation forced many desperate survivors to continue waiting.

Six-year-old Justa Pastora Povera Guillen, laid out on a cot at a refugee center in Posoltega, shook with fever.

Dabbing the girl with a wet cloth, Dr. Rigoberto Sampson gave her half a tablet of Tylenol and said her yellowish eyes suggested malaria. There was little he could do.

``We are lacking medicine. We can’t give her blood tests to see whether it’s malaria but because of the situation here, I think it is,″ he said.

Twenty-five case of cholera have been reported in Guatemala, the Public Health Ministry said Friday. The government has increased water-treatment efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.

The devastation has overwhelmed Central America, where officials say more than 10,000 people died in flooding and mudslides. Honduras said 569,000 were homeless and about 1 million others lost loved ones or property. Nicaragua said more than 750,000 of its people were affected.

Scarcities were readily apparent in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where many supermarket shelves were bare, 1/2-mile-long lines of cars formed at gasoline stations and hundreds of people lined up at the few trucks with potable water.

``I need gas to drive around to find water for my family and my neighbors,″ said an exasperated Boris Vermont, 35, who spent two hours in line at a gas station where fuel ran out Friday.

CARE worker Pilar de Pastor sat helplessly in a jeep on a Tegucigalpa street; there was no aid to deliver. ``We’re hoping to get two helicopters from Palmerola″ air base up north, she said. ``Maybe today they’ll come.″

Nicaraguan victims of last week’s storm have accused President Arnoldo Aleman of being slow to help some of the worst-hit regions because inhabitants overwhelmingly support leftist Sandinistas, the former rebels who governed through the 1980s.

``The government has not sent anything. The only ones who are helping us are the Sandinistas,″ Posoltega Mayor Felicita Zeledon said.

Crowds of hungry flood victims jeered Aleman, calling him a murderer, when he visited nearby Leon on Tuesday.

A French military squadron reached Posoltega on Friday to evaluate the refugees’ needs. French commander Bernard Demaret said a plane carrying 90 tons of supplies would arrive later Friday and its load would be split between Nicaragua and Honduras.

President Clinton has ordered $70 million of aid into the region. His wife, Hillary, and Vice President Al Gore’s wife, Tipper, planned separate trips to Central America in a show of support.

Private relief groups in the United States said they were flooded with calls volunteering private money and supplies.

Dean Owen, spokesman for World Vision, called it ``one of the largest efforts we’ve seen in several years.″ The international group hopes to raise $5 million in money and donations of blankets, towels, soap and other personal care items.

Taiwan pledged relief to Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; Brazil said it would send food, medicine and field tents, and Central American embassies and consulates in Brazil opened special bank accounts to collect monetary donations.

Spain approved an emergency aid package.

The U.S. Navy said its Mobile Construction Battalion Seven was ordered Friday to leave its station in Puerto Rico and head to Honduras to help the rebuilding effort.

In Honduras, relief workers waited anxiously for promised aid _ and scrambled to find aircraft, trucks, gasoline and aviation fuel to deliver it to hundreds of isolated towns.

``One plane (from the United States) had to cancel yesterday,″ reportedly because pilots couldn’t get landing clearance, said Tom Turley of the Connecticut-based Americares. ``We put in a lot of time and effort getting trucks and gas, and now we have to hold back on it.″

CARE _ working with the U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Task Force Bravo in Honduras _ planned to move 60 tons of food a day, but local food stocks are low. Local CARE reserves are nearly depleted, and workers were told they likely won’t get to the devastated southern town of Choluteca by land for at least two months.

``The situation there is grave,″ acknowledged Gloria Manzanares Vaquero, CARE director for central and southern Honduras.

The government _ which already declared a state of siege and overnight curfew to prevent lawlessness _ banned alcohol sales indefinitely Friday. More than 2,000 people have been detained this week for violating the curfew.

At the primary school turned into a shelter in Posoltega, children and weary adults shared a moment of levity, laughing at tricks performed by a juggler from the Spain-based Clowns Without Borders.

Others had a hard time smiling. Susana Benevidas returned to the shelter carrying a large empty bucket.

``I went to look for water because my children are thirsty but there isn’t any,″ the mother of four said. ``A water truck has shown up only twice _ but it runs out very quickly.″

On the mountainside above Posoltega, where some 2,000 people were killed a week ago when the crater lake atop Casitas Volcano broke open, military brigades continued to burn or bury the victims’ bodies.

Mayor Zeledon recalled that when she took office she had hoped to help Posoltega develop from being one of Nicaragua’s poorest towns.

``Now the misery is greater and my program has changed into helping Posoltega survive, to go on living, although with a bitter memory,″ she said.

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