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Critical Humanitarian Operations Underway In Asia-Pacific

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is mounting a huge humanitarian relief operation to help victims of six natural disasters in the Asia-Pacific area. The agency says hundreds of local Red Cross volunteers provided immediate life-saving services in the disaster zones.

The Asia-Pacific Region has been pummeled by six simultaneous disasters in a short space of time. The Philippines was struck by a devastating typhoon on September 26 and a second tropical storm is looming. Samoa and Tonga and American Samoa were hit by a tsunami on September 30.

And, on the same day, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of West Sumatra in Indonesia. Shortly after, a second earthquake struck the same region.

Alistair Henley is the International Red Cross Federation's Director in the Asia Pacific. In a telephone briefing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he says in the last few years, there has been a great increase in the intensity of certain types of disasters and unpredictability of disasters in the region.

"These typhoons, remember, are a normal regular event from the Pacific going through into the East China Sea," said Alistair Henley. "But, the ferocity, I think now that we are seeing and particularly the Ketsana that struck the Philippines was very, very extreme indeed. So, yes, there is definitely the effects of climate change. There is no doubt about that now. "

Henley says quick action by local Red Cross Volunteers has saved hundreds of lives. The United Nations says there are over one-thousand people confirmed dead from the 7.9 magnitude earthquake alone. But, it is believed many more people than that have lost their lives. Rescue efforts are drawing to a close and aid agencies believe the death toll will rise as bodies buried in the rubble are uncovered.

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Heavy rains and landslides have triggered displacement of thousands of people throughout the region. The United Nations and international agencies are rushing in shelter material, food, water, medicine and other needed relief items.

Red Cross Operations coordinator for Indonesia, Christine South, says an aerial assessment team confirms that the coastal city of Padang in West Sumatra is among the hardest hit areas. But, she says the situation in the rural areas is even worse.

"There was talk of complete devastation of some villages, 100 percent devastation, 50 percent in others," said Christine South. "Obviously huge damage to infrastructure cut off by landslides. So, I think we are seeing images from Padang. But, we must not forget surrounding villages are seriously, seriously damaged and the impact of this disaster is likely to increase in the coming days."

South says the earthquake has traumatized many people. She says people are sleeping outdoors in fear of aftershocks. While life saving needs of water, food, shelter and so on are important, she says it also is very important to provide people with the psycho-social counseling they need to help them deal with the disaster.