Micronesia: Chuuk waits for U.S. assistance

From Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai'i

By David V. Crisostomo and Steve Limtiaco

HAG=C5TÑA, Guam (July 12, 2002 - Pacific Daily News) - A lack of proper paperwork has delayed U.S. relief aid for more than a week in landslide-ravaged Chuuk.

Medical, food and other emergency aid is critically needed in Chuuk State, in the Federated States of Micronesia, after landslides caused by then-Tropical Storm Chata'an on July 2 killed more than 40 people, injured dozens of others and left about 1,000 homeless.

The FSM has a Compact of Free Association agreement with the U.S. government that allows the sovereign Pacific island nation to request disaster assistance from the United States.

FSM President Leo A. Falcam sent a disaster declaration to President Bush on July 5 -- two days after Chuuk Gov. Ansito Walter made his disaster declaration, said Lynn Narruhn, FSM government spokeswoman.

The U.S. government did not receive a declaration until early this week, and that request was inadequate, said Bill Sanders, information and planning chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"The (initial) declaration request by the (FSM) president did not meet legal standards," Sanders said. "What we did is we took the declaration that was submitted, and we are helping (the FSM government) tailor it so it does meet legal standards so it can move on."

Falcam submitted a revised request to Bush, via the U.S. Embassy in Kolonia, Pohnpei, according to a release from Falcam's office.

Sanders said FEMA officials stand ready to assist residents in Chuuk, which is located about 620 miles southeast of Guam. Chuuk, which consists of 11 mangrove-fringed volcanic islands in Chuuk Lagoon, has a population of about 47,000 people.

"We have plans and we have planes arranged and we have some assets on the way or there (in Chuuk)," Sanders said. "But we technically can't spend the money -- put the assets into action. For instance, we have a Coast Guard plane that's going to take a bunch of our rapid needs assessment people, and tents, and chain saws, and things out there. Until that declaration is signed, we can't fly that plane out there."

In the meantime, Sanders said FEMA is gathering information about Chuuk from former U.S. military personnel who have visited the state and from local media reports. He said the information is important so FEMA can plan for what type of equipment it needs and where it needs to go first.

Humanitarian aid

On Guam, the medical and humanitarian aid organization Ayuda Foundation is calling on Guam's community to help its Pacific island neighbors.

"At this point, we're the only group that has been able to send help to Chuuk because of the delay in requesting for assistance," said Ayuda Co-Executive Director Carlotta Leon Guerrero, a former Guam senator. Earlier this week, the group sent a team of Guam doctors, led by surgeon and Ayuda founding member Mike Cruz, to Chuuk's main island of Weno to help doctors in Chuuk State Hospital treat the injured.

In his request to Bush, Falcam said Chuuk and the FSM government do not have the resources to cope with the disaster, which has left at least 46 people dead and many more missing. Falcam estimates the cost of damage to both public and private properties at more than $10 million.

The landslides began in the early morning of July 2, some within minutes of each other. Torrential rain pounded Chuuk's islands, unleashing rivers of mud that plowed through hundreds of homes. A landslide on the island of Fanapanges, which buried and killed four children, measured nearly half a mile.

The landslides also decimated local crops throughout the state. Many Chuuk residents now must survive on the few breadfruit and other staple crops that were not destroyed by the mud and rain.

The disaster displaced hundreds of residents, who are now crammed in churches, government buildings and classrooms that have been converted to emergency shelters.

Assistance requested

Falcam has asked the U.S. government to provide the following assistance in the following areas:

  • Preventive measures to control the outbreak of diseases;

  • Reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, including public roads, sewage and water systems, and other public facilities, and properties such as schools and government vessels; and

  • Financial assistance for a six-month replanting project to replace the crops that were destroyed; and a supplemental feeding program for the affected population.

Chuuk health Director Nachsa Siren said the immediate public health concern in the state is preventing or controlling potential disease outbreaks. That also must be of concern for Guam residents, said Ayuda's Leon Guerrero.

"The gates are wide open between them and us. If you can get out of Chuuk right now, then you're going to," she said.

"We need to pay attention to that. We had a measles epidemic on Guam, and I can't imagine what will happen to our tourism industry if a cholera or other epidemic were to happen here."

Leon Guerrero said it is urgent that Guam assists Chuuk with doctors, rescue personnel, rescue equipment, psychologists and other aid.

"Chuuk's residents need all the help we can provide," Leon Guerrero said.

=A9 1997-2002 Pacific Islands Development Program