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Acting as Fast as the Wind

Much of Central America has suffered from the worst Atlantic hurricane in 200 years.

It was in many ways worse than the storm devastations visited upon the Caribbean, China, the Philippines, Florida, and the Carolinas in recent years. It's as if Elijah's fierce wind and Noah's universal flood had joined forces to harass peoples already much tested by other adversities, economic, military, and political.

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Washington - distracted by elections, political jockeying, global economic woes, the Middle East and other matters beyond its southern backyard - has been slow to react to Central America's plight.

Yes, traditional generosity and aid in a time of disaster has started. Commendably so. Long established private charities are giving material aid and spiritual succor. Governments are sending helicopters, food, blankets, tents, and sanitation help. Such aid is beginning to reach flood and mudslide victims. US Navy Seabees have plunged into the work of restoring obliterated roads and bridges.

Through churches and impromptu charities, Americans are trying to show their typical open-heartedness and generosity with checkbooks and food from family pantries.

But more is needed. The Clinton administration was slow off the mark. It can make up for its tardiness in several concrete ways.

One is to increase logistical aid for rebuilding. That includes more helicopters, trucks, structural and plumbing materials, and food and clothing supplies. Much should be outright gifts; some, equipment loans.

Beyond that, the US administration should press allies in Europe, Asia, and Latin America to move promptly on debt forgiveness. That means that World Bank, IMF, and Interamerican Bank member nations ought to forgive international debt owed by Honduras and Nicaragua.

That seemingly dry financial move would do much to help the two governments rebuild what may be a half-century's worth of destroyed housing, businesses, roads, streets, airports, ports, and farms. It would cost member governments relatively little. It would redirect budgets of the two nations from interest payments that build nothing to constructive use.

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Yes, there is danger of setting a new precedent. But such debt forgiveness has recently been extended to poor African states remaking their economies, without causing a default deluge. Aid for self-help is an admirable form of government-to-government charity.

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