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California fire victims get lush treatment in shelter

by Staff Writers
Del Mar, California (AFP) Oct 28, 2007
Dozens of tables are stacked with potato chips, granola bars, baby formula, diapers, toothpaste and toilet paper.

A hot lunch buffet sends the odor of fried coconut shrimp wafting across the room as a handful of people crowd computers marked "Free Internet Access."

Upstairs at a two-story race track building decorated with murals of horses which has become a fire victims' shelter at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, only a dozen cots out of a fleet of hundreds are occupied at midday by Californians who lost their homes after last week's blazes.

More than a week after the wildfires destroyed 1,800 homes and forced the largest evacuation in California history, most are no longer seeking public shelter, preferring to stay with friends or family.

Critics have highlighted the obvious difference between the way southern Californians have been pampered in the aftermath of the fire disaster and the way Louisiana residents were ignored after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But for the 130 or so who are staying here by night, the Red Cross-run operation is a welcome respite from their worries.

"I've seen a few miracles performed," says Rita, 63, who has been staying at the shelter for six nights because the road leading to her mobile home remains blocked by a downed power line and has been deemed too dangerous to cross.

She says she and her husband have been unable to find out if their residence was one of 100 in the park that were destroyed.

"I broke down a bit yesterday but today I'm okay," she says, a styrofoam bowl of chocolate-syrup-doused ice cream in front of her. "Everything here has been wonderful."

In all, 719 people stayed in southern California fire shelters on Saturday night, down from 2,900 at the height of the crisis, according to Red Cross spokesman Steve Kerr.

"As you start the road to recovery you want to get folks back to the pre-disaster lifestyle," Kerr says, adding that a football party is planned for those at the shelter.

The line for the lunch buffet is primarily populated by national guardsmen and Red Cross volunteers, because most people go to their homes and try to clean up as much as they can during the day, he says.

Kerr, who also helped respond to Hurricane Katrina, credits a giving community as well as lessons learned about how to better coordinate response efforts for the difference.

"You can't compare this disaster to another. In Louisiana, the infrastructure was not there. Here, also, people took preparedness much more seriously and they said, 'We have to evacuate,'" he says.

"Where we have benefited is we took some learning experience. We learned better coordination between agencies," he says, adding he has been impressed by the level of cooperation between aid groups and government officials and the outpouring of individual and business donations.

"Maybe because of our past, we have gotten better at this as a country."

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman John Treanor arrives at the shelter in time for lunch, after spending the morning in one of the worst hit neighborhoods, Rancho Bernardo, where FEMA is registering people for government assistance.

The agency has been accused of responding too slowly to the hurricane two years ago, but now Treanor says the operation as "well-organized" and his only lament is that more people are not signing up to see if they meet requirements for government aid.

The 15-year FEMA veteran also says he has not encountered any hostility from people over his agency's conduct after Hurricane Katrina, and declines comment on a FEMA-staged press conference that involved fake reporters on Tuesday, saying: "I only know what I read in the paper."

"At my level we always do the best we can," he says. "I would like to think that FEMA at the upper levels has learned from past experience."

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Rebuilding of Indonesia's Aceh nearly complete: officials
Jakarta (AFP) Oct 26, 2007
The multi-billion dollar reconstruction of Indonesia's Aceh province after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is nearing completion but survivors still face challenges, officials said Friday.

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