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Tsunami disaster is personal for Mercy Corps’ Mitchell

United States, October 20, 2009

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Cliff Newell

The Lake Oswego Review
October, 2009

When Steve Mitchell heard that Samoa had been devastated by a tsunami, he was shocked.

“I wanted to cry,” said the Lake Oswego man. “I was really upset. The Samoan people are the most beautiful, kind and loving people on earth. I know because I’ve traveled most of this planet.”

Mitchell’s travels took him to Samoa for two years as a missionary in the mid 1970s. Now, as chief financial officer for Mercy Corps, he is used to dealing with natural disasters. But the two earthquakes and tsunami that hit the Asia-Pacific region on Sept. 30 really hit home.

“I know the area very well,” Mitchell said. “The damage was terrific. Most Samoans live close together near the shore because of fishing and the cool breezes.

“Actually, it’s surprising the death toll was not much higher, because the tsunami hit the fales (dwellings of the people), concrete buildings, everything in the way. It even affected the fish and the crops inland.”

By Mitchell’s count, 20 coastal communities were totally destroyed, 20 more were damaged, 134 people were killed, and there was $147 million in damage. These were losses the Samoans could ill afford because “they’re an impoverished people.”

The toll for entire western Indonesia was much higher, with 600 persons confirmed dead and thousands trapped under rubble and mudslides.

However, as an officer with Mercy Corps, Mitchell has been able to do something about the double-disaster.

“We’re getting relief to the area as fast as we can,” Mitchell said. “We’re getting aid to tens of thousands of people. We’re also working to provide long-term recovery and development.”

The kits of supplies being distributed by Mercy Corps include food, water and basic necessities. Soon another basic necessity will be distributed – money. Mercy Corps is working with South Pacific Financial Development to obtain loans.

“After the first few days of an emergency, you need to have money,” Mitchell said.

Mercy Corps has been active in Padang, an area with a population of 900,000 people. The organization had already established a presence in Padang over the last five years, and it was well equipped to lead the relief effort.

Mercy Corps teams led by Malka Older, Mercy Corps’ director of programs in Indonesia, were fanning out to assist the areas hardest hit by the earthquakes. They found many devastating scenes.

“Greg Casa Grande of SPFD was traumatized,” Mitchell said. “We asked him, ‘What can we do for you?’”

Aid from some nations, such as Australia, has been plentiful. But Mitchell noted, “The U.S. response has not been strong enough.”

As for Mitchell, he is planning a trip.

“I’ll be going out to Samoa at the end of October,” he said.

To find out more about Mercy Corps’ relief effort in Indonesia, go to www.mercycorps.org .