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Seeking help, but where?

The well-lit room on the top floor of the U.S. international trade center comes alive only for a big disaster, and the lights haven't dimmed in a week. At one computer screen, a man is simultaneously tuned into his phone and his computer screen, coordinating which group will fly what supplies where, half a world away.

At another, a lieutenant colonel in Army green keeps tabs on the U.S. military's delivery of water, food and medicine to thousands of stranded souls in remote parts of Indonesia.

And dominating one wall is a map of the Indian Ocean, its coastlines inked in red and peppered with little symbols marking where the United States and its partners are providing aid.

For President Bush, pledging $350-million in emergency aid to the victims of last month's Indian Ocean tsunami was as easy as the flick of a pen. But deciding how that money is spent is an evolving, decentralized process based on years of experience, conducted against a backdrop of hunger, thirst and misery.

In the past week, the money has paid to send a planeload of water containers and blankets from a massive U.S. government warehouse in Dubai to Colombo, Sri Lanka. It has bought $2-million worth of rice for residents of Sumatra. It has rented trucks and paid drivers for supply convoys in Thailand.

"If they need plastic sheeting for shelter in Indonesia, we send it," said James H. Fleming, deputy manager of response at the U.S. Agency for International Development's disaster operations center.

"If they need a structural engineer to check buildings, we do that. If they need funding for a particular (aid) agency, we take care of that."

USAID is the humanitarian arm of the nation's foreign policy and the lead administrator for disaster relief. Last year, it spent $2.4-billion on disaster aid, from feeding refugees in the Sudan to helping hurricane victims in the Caribbean.

Its operations center, on the top floor of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center near the White House, is staffed by experts in logistics, transportation and humanitarian aid working 12-hour shifts that somehow last 14 hours.

They coordinate the help America is providing with what others are doing, in hopes of preventing duplication and holes in coverage.

But the process for distributing American aid is surprisingly decentralized. Generally, it's based on the requests of USAID teams in the region that have surveyed the damage and are working with private relief groups, the United Nations and local governments to set priorities.

"The one key thing that we've learned in disaster response over the last 50 years is the more you can make decisions in the field, the more accurate will be the shipments," said Jeff Grieco, a deputy administrator at the Agency for International Development.

As of Wednesday, the United States had spent $40.8-million of the promised $350-million, the agency said.

The president's $350-million is earmarked for food, shelter, health care, water and sanitation, but providing those services takes many forms. Already, millions of dollars have gone to airlifting relief supplies _ including water containers, plastic sheeting, blankets and body bags _ stored in USAID warehouses in Miami, Dubai and Italy.

The money also has been used to hire local workers to haul supplies and make roads passable for relief convoys. Millions more have been given to nongovernmental relief agencies with established projects in the region, where they've been working for years to provide clean water, education and health care. USAID had missions in most of the nations hit by the tsunami as well.

"That's one of the strategies, to rely on existing organizations first," Fleming said. "They don't need the startup time, they have all the networks in place."

A breakdown of U.S. grants to these agencies reads like a who's who of aid groups: nearly $650,000 to CARE for water and sanitation in India, $100,000 to Save the Children for medical and emergency supplies in Indonesia, $6-million to the United Nations World Food Program for rice.

A day after the tsunami, USAID gave the International Committee of the Red Cross $4-million.

Independent experts in disaster relief say giving to established groups has proven highly efficient.

"That ensures that the maximum amount of U.S. taxpayer money actually gets spent," said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He and Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said governments in the region are notoriously corrupt, and aid agencies already there often know best how to help.

"They're closer to the people," Hathaway said. "That's certainly not an iron-clad guarantee against corruption, but in many cases that's a more efficient way to dispense aid, and it's also less susceptible to corruption."

The Defense Department has spent about $100-million more so far, mostly through the use of its ships and aircraft to transport food, water and medical care, said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the foreign aid subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. He said the $350-million Bush pledged will not be used to repay the Pentagon for that work; Congress likely must approve additional funding to cover it.

But with wells destroyed, roads and schools gone, and fishing fleets turned to tender, experts said the United States and other industrialized nations will be asked to spend far more on the reconstruction.

After Hurricane Mitch devasted Honduras and several other Central American nations in 1996, for instance, President Bill Clinton committed $370-million for emergency aid. But the total bill for materials, services and debt relief eventually neared $1-billion.

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair contributed to this report.

Countries contribute

Governments and registered aid organizations have so far pledged more than $3-billion to aid tsunami victims. Here's a look at the top 10 in millions of dollars:

Australia $810-million

Germany $674

Japan $500

United States $350

Norway $183

France $103

Britain $95

Sweden $75.5

Denmark $75

Spain $68

Note: As of 2: 30 p.m. EST Wednesday

U.S. RELIEF EFFORTS

The United States has committed $350-million toward earthquake and tsunami relief and recovery efforts. Here's a look at supplies and dollar figures distributed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, as of Tuesday:

MALDIVES: $263,000

80+ dead, 100,000 affected

Items delivered: 150 rolls of plastic sheeting and 5,400 water containers, which will shelter 4,500 people and provide safe drinking water for 13,000

INDIA: $3,116,000

9,000+ dead, 3.5-million affected

Includes support for water and sanitation activities

SRI LANKA: $13,369,526

30,000-46,000 dead, 850,000+ displaced

Items delivered: 250 rolls of plastic sheeting, 2,000 hygiene kits, 1,000 blankets, three 10,000 liter water bladders and 9,600 water containers

THAILAND: $100,000

5,000+ dead, 10,000+ injured

Provided to the Thai Red Cross for emergency relief activities

MALAYSIA: $50,000

60+ dead, 8,000 displaced

Provided to the Malaysia Red Cross and national relief agencies for emergency relief activities

INDONESIA: $19.6-million

94,000+ dead, 380,000+ displaced

Items delivered: 100 rolls of plastic sheeting, two 10,000 liter water bladders, 4,200 10 liter water containers and 500 body bags. Convoy included fuel, power generators and communications equipment

SOMALIA: $50,000

200+ dead 54,000 affected

Provided to UNICEF for emergency relief activities

SHIPS DEPLOYED

USS Bonhomme Richard, helicopter carrier

Head of a seven ship group, carrying 19 helicopters.

USS Abraham Lincoln, aircraft carrier

Off the northern coast of Sumatra, capable of distilling 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day, 49 bed hospital.

HOW USAID DISTRIBUTES AID

DIRECT RELIEF

The agency maintains giant warehouses in Miami, Dubai and Pisa, Italy, stocked with water containers, chlorine tablets, plastic sheeting, body bags and other supplies just for such emergencies. Several planeloads, each worth about $45,000, have been sent to the region.

THE UNITED NATIONS

The agency donates directly to U. N. relief agencies. Early grants included $50,000 for the U. N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Somalia and $2-million to the U.N. World Food Program to buy rice for Sumatra.

CHARITABLE GRANTS

Nongovernmental organizations may apply for U.S. grants. This is a common, reliable and generally efficient route, especially when it involves established relief agencies. For example, right after the disaster, the agency gave $4-million to the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent for shelter, mosquito netting and damage assessment; it gave $750,000 to Catholic Relief Services for water sanitation projects in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu.

CONTRACTING

In later stages of recovery, private companies may bid for U.S.-funded contracts to rebuild schools, roads and water systems.

Sources: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations, ESRI and AP.

SRI LANKAN ORPHANAGE: Selvenayagam Sevenayagi, 7, takes time to herself Wednesday at a makeshift shelter in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, for orphans from the Senthalir Illam orphanage. The orphanage was destroyed in the tsunami, and only 36 of the 154 children survived. STORY, 4A

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