Sleepy and "semi-conscious" the morning after his seventh trip to the Gulf Coast in as many weeks, Gary Lundstrom could not promise he would be coherent for an interview. By now the international projects director for Samaritan's Purse and his staff should be shifting to delivering their annual Christmas shoeboxes. But the disasters aren't letting up.
Aid organizations nationwide and across the globe are stretched thin by the worst year they have seen of natural disasters. This has been the Atlantic's busiest storm season on record, and they can only hope it will end on its official deadline of Nov. 30. Such disaster responders are not there just when earthquakes or hurricanes first strike. They stick around to rebuild, and that means an ever-increasing workload as disasters pile up.
Mr. Lundstrom must now track his group's relief work for Hurricane Katrina; Hurricane Stan in Central America; Hurricane Wilma in Florida and Mexico; and the earthquake in Pakistan. Then there were the less publicized catastrophes earlier this year: major flooding in Mumbai, India, and a typhoon that lashed Vietnam.
The same day Mr. Lundstrom returned home from the Gulf Coast Oct. 25, Samaritan's Purse sent a 53-foot trailer of tools and supplies to Florida, where Hurricane Wilma made landfall after killing 17 people in Haiti, Mexico, and Jamaica. In Florida Wilma left millions without power, $10 billion in damage, and long lines of storm victims waiting for food, gas, and water-a now passé sight unless you are waiting in one.
Still, Wilma stole headlines before the impact of its predecessor, Stan, fully registered. Stan barreled through Central America on Oct. 5, killing about 2,000. Worst hit was Guatemala, where a devastating 40-foot mudslide buried whole towns and villages in the Mayan highland area near Lake Atitlan. More than two weeks later, authorities were able to recover less than 100 buried bodies in the town of Panabaj. They declared the site-and several others-mass graves.
Thousands remain in shelters and in desperate need of food and water, but already long-term worries are afoot for Guatemala. The rains that followed Stan have wiped out major crops that will affect the food supply.
Mercy Corps, based in Portland, Ore., delivered 16,000 tons of cornmeal to one district in Guatemala, enough to feed 1,500 families for two weeks. Like Samaritan's Purse and others, it has ongoing work in areas affected by last December's tsunami; for its aid workers worldwide, this has been an exhausting year. "No one working in this [field] right now has ever seen anything like this," said communications director Jeremy Barnicle.
This hurricane season is wearying other workers too: Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are looking forward to a quiet December. "There is a gradual cumulative tired that we experience in these record years," said Frank Lepore, public affairs officer at the center. "[But] we've been in a period of above normal activity since 1995."
With the furious carousel of disasters, Mr. Lundstrom said it is easy to let each one become engulfing. For the first time, Samaritan's Purse is working from six locations on the Gulf Coast-the sort of response the group usually mounts internationally.
After 12- and 18-hour days, Mr. Lundstrom said, "I go home dead tired and my brain hurts." He has to remember that Samaritan's Purse must help one family or one individual at a time. Like the 83-year-old hurricane survivor in Kiln, Miss., who was "tougher than turtleskin" and erected a sign on her property warning, "Looters will be shot." She was startled when Samaritan's Purse workers arrived to help her after the hurricane, and promptly added "except SP" to her sign when they left. For the sake of such survivors, Mr. Lundstrom does not mind the chaos and exhaustion.
Her daughter, who had studied some English, helped to explain. The woman's husband and two sons had died in Pakistan's devastating Oct. 8 quake, which killed about 80,000. In her tent, and joined by a neighbor and her small daughter, the woman took off her veil and they all wept together. For a community that does not wear its feelings openly, it was a long moment of potent grief. "It was an emotional, private time," said Ms. Maertens, who works on water sanitation for Samaritan's Purse.
More than two weeks later, the quake's horrors were truly beginning to grip its survivors. Paul Chiles, a Samaritan's Purse doctor who arrived in Pakistan four days after the quake, saw a difference after two weeks in the disaster area. At first survivors would group together, having "a good time sitting and talking. Now they know-they know . . . they don't have another 20 years to rebuild their lives."
For Dr. Chiles, who is helping coordinate Samaritan's relief work, this is the worst catastrophe he has seen in 10 years of hitting disaster sites. So many of the buildings had reinforced concrete, the rubble is almost impossible to dig through. He and his team are distributing supplies next to a school building under which some 200 boys and girls died-most of the school's students. If they look carefully, they can see textbooks buried under the debris.
Aid groups and the United Nations have been warning that the Pakistan quake is worse than Southeast Asia's tsunami. They are racing against a coming mountain winter to supply tents and other shelter to survivors, many of whom are in remote villages that have not yet been reached.
The steep mountain terrain is spurring innovation: The Pakistani military has been using mules to reach inaccessible points, while helicopters unable to land drop relief supplies and hope for the best. Mercy Corps, which has worked in northern Pakistan since 1985, has been using knowledgeable local teenage Boy Scouts to scope out some areas.
Meanwhile, the UN doubled its aid appeal to $550 million on Oct. 26, saying between 2 million and 3 million homeless people desperately need aid. Otherwise, diseases such as pneumonia may quickly take root.
Aid agencies estimate some 600,000 tents are needed-a figure virtually impossible to supply. They have to hope plastic sheeting will suffice, and that relief convoys clogging the roads will eventually reach all the survivors. As the grief swells, time dwindles.