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'Gigantic' tragedy stirs relief efforts

Doctors and merchants in the Indian community help collect money and supplies for thousands injured or displaced by last month's earthquake.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


Even 300 miles away from the epicenter, Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan felt the tremors.

The Hernando County cardiologist had traveled back to his native India to celebrate new marriages in his family. It was supposed to be a happy time, a vacation from his busy practice.

But soon he would hear the horrible news: The minor shaking he experienced in Bombay, which had caused many to look up in surprise and others to become dizzy, was actually a killer earthquake that left at least 30,000 dead and many more homeless.

Now Nathan is one of several Hernando residents -- as well as local businesses -- sending money and supplies to help those affected by one of the worst earthquakes in India's history, which struck Jan. 26 and measured a magnitude of 7.7. Already, thousands of dollars have been raised locally, though officials say it will take much, much more to rebuild what was lost in a few terrifying seconds.

"It's a tragedy of gigantic proportions, and everybody feels for them," Nathan said. "There is considerable suffering. They need food, medical treatment and money to rebuild. And we are here in America and doing so well, it is only fair that we send something."

Various organizations are joining in the effort. Nathan said many Indian doctors are contributing through medical organizations. Oak Hill Hospital has circulated a memo among its employees, said spokeswoman Nancy Levija, and administrators plan to send donations through Oak Hill's parent company.

Diness Ghandi, who owns a convenience store in Spring Hill and another in Pasco County, has put jars on his store counters asking for spare change and dollar bills.

"We're getting slow but growing support," Ghandi said. "Everybody wants to do something. But locally, we're still trying to find a leader to help organize."

So far, most people are sending money and donations through larger organizations, such as the American Red Cross and the Indian Cultural Center in Tampa. Jim Panjabi, a local resident whose parents and other family members still live in the area where the earthquake hit, said any help is greatly appreciated. He said none of his family was killed, but part of his cousins' house was swallowed up. Despite the damage, the family is still living in the home and has taken in another family whose house was destroyed.

And they're the lucky ones, he added. Since the initial quake, 260 aftershocks have hit western India. In all, 250,000 families require shelter, according to U.N. officials.

"People are living on the street. They're holding school in tents," Panjabi said. "People are afraid to go to sleep. Even if they have an apartment, they go sleep in the road because they are scared it will happen again."

To help the victims of this and other disasters, Red Cross officials recommend residents make monetary donations, rather than food or blankets, which are more difficult to transport.

So far, the Red Cross has collected $600 from Hernando County residents to help in the earthquake, said spokeswoman Shelley Allen. She added that she expects many more donations to roll in.

"Even though it's happening overseas, people on a local level want to help out," she said.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

How to help

To donate, contributions can be made to the American Red Cross International Response Fund by calling (800) 435-7669 or (800) 257-7575 (Spanish).

Internet users can make a secure online credit card contribution by visiting www.redcross.org. Contributions to the International Response Fund may also be sent to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

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