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CNN Today

Agency for International Development Official Discusses Rescue Operations in El Salvador Following Earthquake

Aired January 15, 2001 - 2:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: El Salvador is pleading for help today: money, food, medicine and blankets. More than 400 people are confirmed dead from Saturday's earthquake. There are fears thousands of others are buried in mud and wreckage.

For the living, the situation grows more desperate with each passing hour. But there has been a success story.

Joining us now by telephone, CNN's Susan Candiotti -- Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Natalie.

Fort-eight hours after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake devastated parts of El Salvador, search-and-rescue teams are still clawing at mounds of mud, using hands, shovels , cranes and bulldozers to clear debris in hopes of finding survivors.

The latest reported case happened Sunday night: Incredibly, a man trapped underneath a tremendous pile of mud several feet down able to get out a cell phone signal, calling rescuers to his side, and eventually being freed.

Now, teams of international search-and-rescue specialists are looking for more survivors, but as time goes on, worry is growing. Among the countries represented include those from Europe and the Far East as well as the United States, a group of Miami-Dade, Florida, firefighters searching damaged homes for signs of life. The massive job of burying the dead also goes on. Space is at a premium in makeshift morgues that have to be emptied sometimes before families have been able to identify those found. Some have been buried in mass graves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We have now found and identified more than 300 bodies and yesterday began burying first in our municipal cemetery. But we are going to have to move all the bodies that remain trapped under the mud for sanitation reasons. There are now over 7,000 people seeking refuge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CANDIOTTI: And those numbers of people dead has now risen to more than 400. Shelters are set up around the city to house the homeless, estimated by the Red Cross throughout El Salvador to number at least 15,000. All of this as more aftershocks also continue, hampering rescue efforts -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Susan, did we hear you right -- this man that was rescued was able to get a signal on his cell phone?

CANDIOTTI: You heard correctly, that is right. Imagine: Sometimes it's difficult for us to get a signal, calling within our own communities. In this case, his life was saved because he was able to get a signal out from under that mud.

ALLEN: Yes, he should hang on to that cell phone. Thanks so much, Susan Candiotti, from El Salvador.

Now here's Joie.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: On the telephone line with us at this hour is Roy Williams, who is with the U.S. Agency for International Development, in Washington, D.C., but he's been in contact with those from his agency who are down in the quake zone itself.

Mr. Williams, what can you tell us right now is the biggest need for those down there in the quake zone?

ROY WILLIAMS, U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT: I think what we're looking at to start resolving as quickly as possible are the issues of distribution of supplies to the people who are basically homeless, scattered from their communities. I think that is the thing that were facing now.

And also parallel to that is the question of the stability of the hospitals to which they're being brought, and there are engineers looking at structural stability. We can't have people moving into hospitals if they're going to collapse.

CHEN: I see people in the pictures we have seen digging with their hands, digging with single shovels. I mean, for those who have still have hope that they may have loved ones alive under the masses of dirt and mud and what have you, how can you help them in their efforts, maybe in vain, to try to rescue anyone that's under there?

WILLIAMS: One of the difficulties in this kind of situation is that basically it's a landslide. And the more heavy equipment can do as much harm as good. And if you don't know where you're digging, for example, if you use a massive, mechanical instrument, you're likely to be hitting someone under it. It's a labor intensive occupation, unfortunately.

One interesting thing in this whole situation is that there's been very little structural damage. This is quite unusual in an earthquake of that magnitude.

CHEN: Is it because the buildings were built for that purpose, to withstand quakes, or is it just luck? WILLIAMS: Well, I think probably the former. And however they were planned, it seems to have worked out very well: We've seen nothing like the usual structural damage that we would see ion an earthquake, as I've said, of this magnitude.

CHEN: We see a limited number of pictures from the region. Can you talk about the difficulties and conditions that rescuers are working in?

WILLIAMS: They are considerable. From day one, where the Emergency Operation Center, where we had don't a lot to establish and set up in training, that was partially damaged by the earthquake. So people had to start moving the communications equipment.

One of the biggest problems that we've been facing is trying to get information between the field and the operations center and vice versa so we can begin handling this distribution in a rational, reasonable way.

CHEN: We see the aid workers who have gone down there come from many countries to assist in the effort. Can you talk a little bit about how they are accommodated in such situations? I realize that the residents, of course, have the most dire circumstances, but after all, you do have to protect the aid workers, the rescuers who come to help.

WILLIAMS: Well, I can speak about the teams that we have sent down. And we have set up our teams so that they're self-sufficient. In other words, they can set up their own tents and their water supply and so forth so they can do their job unhindered, and also at the same time, not be an imposition on the communities.

CHEN: And just one other thought here: If people in the United States want to help, what is the best thing that we can offer at this point?

WILLIAMS: The best thing is to provide cash through the organizations to whom you have trust. One of the major things that we've seen in earlier disasters is that with the best will in the world, massive donations in food and clothing simply hinder an operation, because it means moving things, and that doesn't work.

CHEN: All right, thanks very much, Mr. Williams, Roy Williams, from the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaking with us on the telephone line, from Washington.

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