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Tsunami soon will be old news

Tsunami soon will be old news
International recovery efforts will continue long after media move on

This message is offered by Paul Leonard, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Ga.

When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said recently that rebuilding in Asia would take five to 10 years, columnist George Will scoffed, “Look at Newark; the riots there were 40 years ago, and we’re still in the process of rebuilding.”

It’s likely that Annan agrees with Will, yet, understanding how the world responds to disaster, he was probably projecting only as far into the future as he could imagine the viewing public could handle. But we must strive to look further.

It’s too early to say how long it will take for the countries hit by the tsunami Dec. 26 to recover fully. The world humanitarian community is still responding to the immediate crisis – looking for survivors, gathering and burying the dead, healing the injured and getting food, water, short-term shelter and medical supplies to those whose lives have been forever altered by this catastrophe.

The response has been extraordinary. Food, clothing, equipment and money are flowing to the region from around the world in unprecedented fashion. Much of the credit for this generous response goes to the media, who immediately sent reporters to the region, and who have given the world a view of the unimaginable devastation and the intense human toll this disaster has wrought.

But will this unique and powerful combination of compelling media coverage and the outpouring of private and public aid follow the pattern of past natural disasters? We need look back no further than this past summer, when hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan hit Florida, causing billions of dollars of damage and wreaking havoc for thousands. In recent weeks, who besides the Florida residents and the persistent workers helping rebuild there have thought much about the hurricanes of only four months ago?

The media turn their attention – and, in turn, our attention – to other matters that are more pressing and more immediate than a disaster that was yesterday’s news.

Four months from now, will we be hearing about the continuing struggle in Asia? Will we be seeing images of people picking up the pieces and rebuilding their lives? Will we remember that the suffering and the struggle is continuing for five years, 10 years, 40 years?

We who will be on the front line of the rebuilding won’t forget. Habitat for Humanity, like many of the international humanitarian organizations responding to the catastrophe, was working in the countries affected – building houses, supporting communities, changing lives – long before the waters rushed in. We are there now providing assistance, and we will stay – as long as needed – to support the families we’ve worked with in the past and the thousands of others who need assistance.

It’s difficult to comprehend the enormity of the catastrophe. It’s even more difficult to gauge the size of the rebuilding effort that will be required. But we know such an effort will require sustained commitment and support from those individuals and nations whose hearts have been deeply touched by the pictures and stories of the immediate aftermath of the disaster – long after the media coverage has waned.

Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer. Copyright owned by The Charlotte Observer.