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Dominican Government’s Credibility Taken by Storm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just a few hours before Hurricane Georges blasted this Caribbean nation last week, the country’s civil defense chief appeared on television to reassure an anxious nation.

As the storm approached, newly appointed Civil Defense Director Elpidio Baez discounted scientific projections that it was likely to rip through the heart of the nation and its capital, Santo Domingo.

Sophisticated computers at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami that were predicting such a route, Baez said, were just plain wrong. They had misread Georges’ course before, he explained.

Forty minutes later, a trembling Baez again appeared on television and gave the location of the government’s emergency hurricane shelters for the first time since the storm began bearing down on the island nation: “I want to tell all the inhabitants of Santo Domingo to immediately evacuate their homes and go to the shelters. . . . Take cover!”

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But for many, it was too late.

Millions of Dominicans--and their government--were sitting ducks for a monstrous storm that wrought such havoc on this already impoverished nation that Dominican President Leonel Fernandez announced Monday that his government must now renegotiate its foreign debt to finance even the basics of life for its 8 million citizens in the months ahead.

A full week after Georges demolished bridges, wiped out entire barrios, ripped apart hotels and ruined crops, nearly 100,000 Dominicans remain homeless. At least 203 people are confirmed dead, and nearly 100 are still missing. Most disappeared when the government--without evacuating villages downriver--opened a dam that was about to burst, relief officials said.

It was a disaster that was compounded by the government’s response to it, many here say. Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, the prelate of this predominantly Roman Catholic nation, spoke for most Dominicans when he indicated to reporters last weekend that the government could--and should--have better prepared its citizens for their worst natural disaster in 20 years.

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“I believe that lives can always be saved when precautions are taken,” he said. “And, in this case, it would have been preferable, with more time, to take people to shelters, where they could have been properly cared for.”

The Dominican toll is the highest in the Caribbean, where a total of 370 deaths--most of the remainder in neighboring Haiti--are blamed on the storm. By contrast, five died in Puerto Rico, which was devastated the day before. And three were killed in Cuba, where authorities evacuated 200,000 people in advance of the storm.

And the effects of the disaster here will almost certainly be felt in the United States in the weeks and months ahead. Dominican economists and social commentators say the disaster inevitably will fuel illegal Dominican migration and drug trafficking to U.S. shores, both of which were growing problems even before the storm.

“Today, we are much poorer even than we were before,” Dominican economist Felix Calvo concluded in an essay published here Tuesday. “It is as if a massive napalm attack had leveled the country.

“Now we must discover a new Dominican Republic.”

Said Paolo Oberti, the United Nations’ representative here: “This disaster is definitely going to worsen the situation. The poor will become miserable, and the miserable will become sub-miserable.”

Calvo estimated the total cost of the storm at a little less than $6 billion--about 40% of the country’s $15-billion gross national product.

The government’s damage estimate is much lower: $1.2 billion. But even the official figures testify to the potential long-term impact of the storm. At least 10% of the hotel rooms in the republic’s vital tourism sector were damaged. So were most factories and power plants in a country where chronic electricity shortages trigger strikes and social unrest.

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In Fernandez’s nationally televised speech Monday night--apparently timed to preempt the first inning of the Chicago Cubs’ playoff game featuring Dominican national hero Sammy Sosa--he unveiled plans to raise $650 million to rebuild the country.

Much of the money, he said, will be diverted from the government’s foreign debt repayments after they are rescheduled. Tens of millions more will be deducted from the paychecks of the government’s highest-paid civil servants--officials who earn $12,000 a year or more. And Fernandez said still more will come from foreign aid.

Already, the U.S. government has mobilized emergency relief efforts here. Washington has sent tons of medicine, food, water and plastic roofing, along with search-and-rescue teams.

A detailed list of the U.S. aid gives a glimpse of just how little this country has to cope with such a disaster.

For search-and-rescue operations and airdrops of emergency rations, the U.S. Army sent six helicopters this week; the entire Dominican Air Force has just two--both Vietnam War-vintage. To clear the thousands of felled trees that have blocked the nation’s roads, the U.S. gave the Dominican navy 24 chain saws--24 more than it had before.

“Simply put, the capacity of the Dominican government is insufficient to meet the nation’s needs,” said Miguel Guerrero, a political analyst.

Yet even with limited foreign aid, the country can, in fact, rebuild itself relatively soon, Guerrero and other analysts said, provided the government does so with minimum corruption and maximum efficiency.

“If the Dominican government spends the emergency funds rationally, appropriately and efficiently, I think they can get through the crisis fairly quickly,” said Anibal de Castro, a social analyst and publisher of the Dominican weekly magazine Rumbo.

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But in assessing the government’s performance before and during the hurricane, De Castro added, “I have my doubts.”

The cover of Rumbo, which hits the streets today, declares: “The Cost of Shortsightedness.” It uses transcripts of Baez’s televised appearances the day of the storm and reports from emergency management meetings in the days before to detail government mistakes, misjudgments and misplaced priorities.

“The political cost of this disaster to the government will be very, very high,” De Castro said Tuesday.

According to several accounts published here in recent days, civil defense chief Baez also had ordered deletions from official weather advisories that would have warned the nation of the devastation to come. He reportedly labeled as “alarmists” Dominican meteorologists who predicted the storm’s grave potential, arguing that such warnings would hurt the country’s tourism industry.

Baez could not be reached for comment this week. But in interviews with the Dominican media after the storm, he justified his reluctance to give the location of the hurricane shelters by citing the nation’s chronic problem of poor families that invade and occupy public property. Announcing the locations, he said, would have been an open invitation to squatters.

* GULF COAST RECOVERS: One man who rode out the storm says he “wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” A11


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