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Earthmovers

Top stories of 2005 | Disaster upon disaster beyond U.S. shores

Issue: "News of the year," Dec. 31, 2005

As experts debated the wisdom of rebuilding large swaths of the low-lying city of New Orleans, aid workers a half a world away toiled under grueling conditions to rebuild far larger swaths of Southeast Asia ravaged by a tsunami nine months earlier. When a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rumbled four miles beneath the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, it produced a tidal wave of cataclysmic proportions, sweeping coastlines in 12 nations, killing more than 200,000 people, and displacing millions more.

Undone by the largest natural disaster in recorded history, millions of people clamored for food and clean water, while armies of aid workers struggled to deliver scarce supplies into 2005. Desperate reports emerged about the vulnerable. Among the most chilling: Thousands of newly orphaned children suddenly became the target of thugs trafficking in slave labor and the commercial sex trade.

Nearly a year later, a UN official told reporters that "the emergency is almost over," noting that more than 1 million children have received vaccinations and that hundreds of thousands of people have regular access to drinking water. But in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, near the epicenter of the tsunami's destruction, the Australian Red Cross said emergency settlement camps this month are in need of "urgent intervention": Disease is rampant throughout dilapidated tents and unsanitary barracks packed with nearly 70,000 displaced citizens waiting for their villages to be rebuilt.

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Though an outpouring of global sympathy from governments and individuals produced billions of dollars in aid, recovery has been slow. Workers face daunting obstacles: labor shortages, limited supplies, and significantly less land on which to build. Millions of aid dollars remain unused. Nongovernment organizations have been among the most successful at surviving the recovery. By the end of 2005, Habitat for Humanity International had built 6,000 homes and repaired 35,000 in tsunami-affected areas. The group plans to remain in the area as long as it's needed, which will likely be for years to come.

While millions in Southeast Asia began 2005 coping with catastrophic loss, millions more in Pakistan and India ended the year grappling with a catastrophe of their own. When a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck northern Pakistan on Oct. 8, more than 80,000 people died. Tens of thousands more were injured, and over 3 million were made homeless.

Rescue workers frantically struggled to extract the living and the dead from the rubble of substandard homes and buildings. Parents flocked to collapsed schools where hundreds of children lay dead beneath debris. By year's end, survivors were hunkering down for a snowy, severe winter with limited supplies in second-rate tents-and at elevations (most above 5,000-7,000 feet) hampering all but the most intrepid relief efforts. Nearly 800,000 people had no shelter whatsoever. Survivors in hard-hit Muzaffarabad began digging graves before the ground froze, anticipating more deaths that the long, Himalayan winter may bring.

After an exhausting year of disasters prompting record donations for relief elsewhere, the well of charitable giving seemed tapped out. By the end of the year, the UN had raised only 40 percent of the $312 million it said it needed to aid Pakistan.

Relief came, anyway. Survivors welcomed U.S. troops arriving on humanitarian missions in mid-October. In Muzaffarabad, the U.S. Army set up its last available Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) unit, tending to injured in the remote area.

Army Specialist Leah Schumacher of the 123rd Main Support Battalion assisted with water purification for the M.A.S.H. unit, and she told WORLD that conditions were arduous on the journey from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad. The normally 10-hour convoy turned into a 27-hour trip. That was just before a Dec. 12 quake struck 200 miles from the October epicenter, killing at least 11 and leaving more homeless in the isolated region. "We went through some of the most treacherous conditions I have encountered," said Spc. Schumacher, who has also served in Iraq. "The towns I encountered . . . had a stench I will never forget."

With Pakistan reeling from earthquakes and aftershocks, residents in Latin America also coped with multiple disasters, as massive mudslides buried entire towns just days before Hurricane Stan made landfall Oct. 4 and ripped through the region. The hurricane's torrential rains turned the Mayan hills into a muddy death trap for at least 1,000 people in Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Guatemala was hardest hit with at least 700 deaths and thousands of injuries. In the country's western township of Tacana, near the Mexican border, rescue workers recovered more than 130 bodies from a mudslide that buried a shelter where people had fled from the rains and flooding.

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