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We can't prevent earthquakes. But technology and techniques now exist to save lives after such tragedies, and that is why it has been so disturbing to witness trained rescue workers arriving in Mexico City too late to help many trapped in collapsed buildings. Members of a French team complained bitterly that they could have saved dozens, if not hundreds, of additional lives if they had been called to the scene promptly after the disaster struck. By the time Mexican officials got around to requesting their presence two days after the quake, far more of the bodies pulled from the rubble were lifeless.

A week after the first tremor, television was still broadcasting the same desperate images: untrained civilians digging through masses of concrete and twisted steel with garden tools or their own hands; international rescue crews screaming at each other about how to approach the collapsed buildings so as not to finish off those who might have survived. Mexico still lacks the manpower and heavy equipment it needs to unearth bodies and demolish dangerous buildings left partially standing. At first the Mexicans were too proud to ask for help. When they finally admitted their need, they issued an appeal for equipment, not knowing which countries could supply the dogs, cranes, and electronic sensors required to find and extricate the victims.

Confusion, lack of coordination, and costly errors are generally accepted as the natural aftermath of tragedies like the Mexico City earthquake. After the devastating quake that struck Managua in 1972, the Somoza government issued a confused request for aid that resulted in a tremendous duplication of efforts. Nicaragua said it needed two mobile hospitals, which cost $500,000 each. The United States, France, and Cuba all responded to the same distress signal; they sent two extra hospitals, which remained in their cartons. After the Guatemalan earthquake in 1976, pharmacists wasted the first precious weeks trying to make an inventory of drugs shipped by well-meaning but uninformed donors. One hundred tons of medicine eventually had to be buried. No failure so dramatic has occurred in Mexico thus far, perhaps because the government has insisted that it doesn't need food, clothing, or medical help.

Governments and private organizations like the Red Cross know that relief efforts have a tendency to turn into minor disasters themselves. Debate about the failure of relief for the Peruvian earthquake of 1968 and the East Pakistan cyclone of 1970 got world leaders thinking about the problem, and in 1971 the United Nations General Assembly created the United Nations Disaster Relief Office. UNDRO was not intended as another relief agency, but as a clearinghouse that would match the abilities of donor nations to the needs of countries struck by a disaster. In theory, UNDRO would find out exactly what a country like Mexico needed, and arrange for governments and private agencies to provide effective help.

In practice, however, UNDRO is a cumbersome bureaucracy, which further delays the response to urgent requests, if it does anything at all. If a country chooses to proceed through U.N. channels for disaster assistance, it must make a request through the resident representative of the United Nations Disaster Program, a separate but related agency. The resident representative refers the request to the UNDRO office in Geneva, which sends an investigator to assess the needs. UNDRO then goes to its computer to find out what nations or private organizations can help, and issues formal requests for aid to those potential donors. While this finely tuned machine hums and buzzes, evaluating alternative responses, the misery continues. Many U.N. officials and outside evaluators such as the United Nations Association of the United States have criticized UNDRO as ineffectual and too slow. Usually, as in the case of Mexico, nations don't even ask for UNDRO's help. Beleaguered governments choose to go directly to the sources of aid rather than tackle the workings of an independent bureaucracy. When this happens, UNDRO laments that it is prohibited from doing anything but sit- ting on its hands.

Even when it functions as it is supposed to, UNDRO's ability to cope is extremely limited. Its sponsors envisioned UNDRO directing aid as a policeman directs traffic—he doesn't tell drivers where to go, he advises them how to get where they are already going. The United Nations act creating the agency mandates that UNDRO cannot supply anything itself (except food under rare circumstances). The organization doesn't own any equipment, and has no trained rescue workers on its payroll. They may know where to find each of these, but the UNDRO technocrats don't dirty their hands in the rubble.

Our own Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of the Agency for International Development suffers from similar structural limitations. The office can't send Mexico a crane to knock down buildings. Rather, after finding out that Mexico needs a crane, OFDA can see which U.S. department has one and “task” that agency with the response to a specific request. OFDA knows what resources are at its disposal and does a good job of channeling requests rapidly, but its bureaucratic structure inherently slows the response to a crisis in which speed is critical.

The various skills and equipment needed in a disaster are by their nature widely dispersed among the nations of the world. Mexico's quake is an instructive example. The rescue and relief effort still under way includes Israeli demolition experts who received state-of-the-art training in Lebanon, and technicians from the U.S, Bureau of Mines, which has developed sensitive equipment to determine whether trapped coal miners are still breathing. Because it is especially vulnerable to earthquakes, Mexico itself has trained many of the world's foremost seismologists, and has volunteered them in the past to help out in disasters in Central and South America, All of these far-flung experts and tools are needed whenever a major earthquake strikes an urban area. There are similar basic requirements for responding to a flood, a drought, a famine, a cyclone, and a chemical leak.

This makes most relief efforts today a little like jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. And they wouldn't fit together even if the parts were all there. Rescue crews arrive at different times, speak different languages, and usually have no one giving them orders. Even if UNDRO directs the right crews to the right place, there isn't anyone there to tell the demolition experts to wait for rescue workers. This is precisely what happened in Mexico City because French and local teams weren't working together. Logic suggests a better way. The workers and equipment that are always needed in a disaster like an earthquake ought to be deployed as a single team from a central location, One international crew with all the necessary skills could save far more lives than the tragicomic failures we have come to accept as inevitable.

Governments like our own whose foremost concern is helping disaster victims should circumvent the clumsy mechanism of UNDRO. The United States should take the lead in establishing a multinational disaster rapid deployment force, which would stand ready to intervene anywhere in the world at any time. The amount we spend annually on the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance ($160 million this year) could be better employed as a contribution to a "Griefbusters" force, trained and equipped to respond to natural and manmade disasters. A flexible rapid deployment force would report to a single director. More important, it would know what each kind of disaster called for, and would either possess or have immediate access to the basic required equipment. The force could employ a semi-military structure, with reservists from member nations who could be called up at a moment’s notice. It could descend from the skies with the needed tools without having to wait for a formal plea.

This kind of multinational force would be likely to run into trouble with countries that object to having their sovereignty encroached upon. Throughout the current Ethiopian famine, the government has demonstrated that it considers keeping foreigners out more important than saving the lives of its own people. When a nation is simply unwilling to tolerate assistance, there is no practical way for outsiders to help short of military invasion.

But we can and should make it easier for governments to accept disaster assistance, Mexico, which has been too proud to ask for help, gladly receives all that is sent unsolicited. If we made a prior agreement with other nations, promising to help each other in case of disaster, the bur- den would be to refuse aid rather than to ask for it. Were Mexico a party to such an agreement, French rescue workers would have been on their way as soon as they learned of the quake. If an earthquake struck the United States, Mexican technicians would rush here. We might someday need them as much as they need us now. We might also discover that we have similar qualms about "begging." A reciprocal treaty would remove the sting of pride that keeps nations from asking each other for help.

One major objection to a disaster relief force would doubtless be that it would limit its membership to our allies. The failures of United Nations forces around the world ought to demonstrate the need to exclude hostile nations. Foreign aid is essentially political. At one level we may offer our help from "pure" motives, but we hope to win friends and improve our stature in the world as fringe benefits. Hence nations compete to provide the best foreign aid. This impetus seems essential to disaster assistance. Thus the Griefbusters force should be under the political control of the United States and our allies. If the Soviet Union decides to create an Eastern bloc rescue team, no harm will be done. It would be better for the superpowers to compete for the affections of the world with aid to disaster-stricken nations than by supplying arms. The Soviet Union's past failure to provide major disaster assistance indicates, however, that their interest in the field is limited.

The burden of paying for the force wouldn't have to fall exclusively on our shoulders. We could contribute the budget of the OFDA, and convince our European allies to pitch in with the sums they contribute to parallel agencies. The cost should be distributed more equitably among wealthy nations than the NATO budget. We could also ask Japan to bear a disproportionately large share of the burden. Japan spends slightly more than one-tenth per capita what the United States does on our common defense—the nuclear umbrella. As an excuse, they hide behind a clause in the constitution we wrote for them, which prohibits significant military expenditures. But they could have no plausible objection to contributing to lifesaving instead of defense. And it would help bolster Japan's sagging international image.

UNDRO could continue to assist in predicting and preventing disasters and in coordinating long-term redevelopment plans with the U.N. Disaster Program. Griefbusters need not address the larger issues of long-term development; that should remain the province of USAID, The force would simply respond to the immediate imperative of saving as many lives as possible in the wake of a tragedy. If such a crew were around today, we might be listening to Mexico's thanks—instead of its requests for more body bags.