Chuuk Death Toll Rises: U.S. Aid Team To Transfer Critically Ill

by David V. Crisostomo

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News): July 13, 2002 - Federal disaster officials are urgently moving to assist those critically injured in last week's deadly landslides in Chuuk.

A U.S. team was expected to arrive in the main island of Weno in Chuuk State last night and was expected to arrange for the off-island transfer of at least three critically injured landslide victims, said Dr. Michael Cruz of the medical and humanitarian aid organization Ayuda Foundation. Cruz was in Chuuk earlier this week with a team of other volunteer doctors and medical personnel, assisting Chuuk State Hospital care for the injured.

The death toll rose to 47 late Thursday, according to Chuuk's Disaster Office. Torrential rain from then-Tropical Storm Chata'an pounded Chuuk State July 2 and triggered more than 30 massive landslides throughout the state's 11 volcanic islands. Hundreds of people were injured and hundreds of homes destroyed.

About 1,000 people have been displaced by the deadliest disaster in the state. Chuuk is located about 620 miles southeast of Guam and has a population of 47,000 people.

The latest landslide victim was 11-year-old Guideman Ruben, who died Thursday of head injuries he sustained when he was swept under mud and thrown into the mangroves that line the shore of his home island of Tonoas, which suffered the most casualties.

"Unfortunately, Guideman died within 10 minutes before we left for the airport," said Cruz, a surgeon who led the medical volunteer group that returned to Guam Thursday.

Guideman was among the four most critically injured survivors who needed off-island medical treatment, Cruz said.

"The three remaining patients need to be (taken) off island. It's a loss of limb or life for them," Cruz said.

"People in Chuuk need aggressive wound care. Most of the wounds were a week or longer from the initial disaster, increasing infection."

Cruz said recovery for all patients will take time.

"All those wounds are going to be long-term, some of the wounds will take upwards to three to six months to heal," he said. "Even after they heal they may not have functioning limbs."

may be years before Chuuk recovers from the disaster, and even longer for survivors to cope with the psychological and emotional trauma, Cruz said.

He recalled treating 14-year-old survivor Chentaleen Ambraw, whose mother pushed her out of their home when a wall of mud plowed through their living room July 2. The mud carried Chentaleen about 60 feet before depositing her along the mangroves on Tonoas.

"This is a girl who lost her parents and siblings. While we were doing her dressing change, she was crying out in pain," Cruz recalls. "I was asking (the Chuuk personnel) what she was saying. She kept saying, 'Mommy, mommy, I'm in pain. Where are you?' It's heart breaking. She hasn't even had a chance to deal with the psychological aspect of it. She's still dealing with the physical pain."

U.S. assistance to Chuuk State, in the Federated States of Micronesia, had been delayed for a week because the FSM national government did not properly submit its disaster declaration and assistance request to the U.S. government.

The U.S. government did not receive a declaration until early this week and that request had inaccurate legal language, said Bill Sanders, information and planning chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

President Leo Falcam resubmitted his request Thursday to the State Department and is awaiting aid approval from President Bush.

The FSM has a Compact of Free Association agreement with the U.S. government that allows the sovereign Pacific island nation to request disaster assistance from the United States.

In the meantime, relief efforts on Guam are in full swing.

Ayuda plans on more volunteer medical missions to Chuuk.

"We have four people ready to go," said Carlotta Leon Guerrero, co-executive director of the foundation.

Leon Guerrero said the volunteers will fly to Chuuk as soon as seats become available on Continental Micronesia. The airline, which helped to establish Ayuda in Guam, is giving seats to medical volunteers and has been shipping critically needed supplies to Chuuk for free. Chuuk State government has arranged accommodations for volunteers, she said.

The Salvation Army Guam Corps is also ready to assist landslide victims, said Corps Officer Capt. Dave Harmon. The organization, which provides disaster relief aid, is collecting shovels, mops, brooms, bath soap, disinfectant cleaners, canned goods and other supplies for landslide survivors.

"The relief efforts are going quite slowly because there are so many different islands involved," Harmon said. "Short of cleaning out our pantries, we've brought all the food we can. We are collecting all types of donations."

Harmon said Guam residents have been preoccupied with storms on the island and need to shift their attention to Chuuk.

"We're going to support Chuuk to the end," he said.

It is critical that Guam's community assists in the aftermath of the landslides, Dr. Cruz said.

"I think it's important because Guam is a major regional player and it does affect us," he said. "Guam people were the initial ones who responded. We need to help out Chuuk. We are part of Micronesia, and they are our brothers."