WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (RNS) -- The earthquake that hit El Salvador last weekend may bethe first major disaster of 2001, but chances are it won't be the last.

With the increasingly dense populations in disaster-prone areas,experts will tell you it's only a matter of time before a hurricane orflood or another earthquake hits a large group of people.

The statistics may be grim but there is some good news. Thediscipline of disaster relief is becoming increasingly sophisticated,giving those who survive an encounter with nature's fury a much betterchance of finding help in hours, not days or weeks.

The primary reasons people in need are being helped more quickly arethe pre-positioning of supplies and the use of "disaster packs"--prepackaged goods designed specifically for people dealing with thetype of calamity likely to hit the region.

For example, the disaster packs already being distributed in ElSalvador by groups like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and World Visioninclude water purification bottles, plastic sheeting for temporaryshelter and some basic food and medical supplies.

These packs are designed to accommodate a family and are oftenpalletized in quantities large enough to serve an average size village.

While it may be heartwarming to see people in the United Statesgathering blankets and cans to send to the victims of El Salvador, thefact is those supplies will simply take too long to reach Latin Americaand cost too much to ship in to the most needy regions.

An additional problem with such supplies is the increasinglydifficult process of passing private shipments through customs. Thecontents must be unpacked and inspected carefully, often delaying theprocess longer.

Sadly, drug smugglers discovered this loophole a few disasters backand began using such tragic situations to mask the shipment of drugs andother illegal items through customs. The head of civil defense inBolivia told me last summer his customs people now become even moresuspicious when boxes arrive marked as "help for victims."

But the increasing preparedness of groups specializing in reliefmeans supplies are often in country or at a location less than a dayaway. World Vision uses Costa Rica as a supply center for much of LatinAmerica. Dean Owen, public relations director for the organization, saysin countries like Honduras, where major disaster has already struck,disaster supplies are positioned in various areas of the country itself.

Pro-Pac, one of the major suppliers of disaster materials, has anintriguing catalog featuring everything from generators to body bags.Its primary customers are nongovernmental organizations and theorganization readily admits it fine-tunes its distribution based on theexperience of its customers.

"We began to include simple coloring books and puzzles for childrenin some of our survival packs for families after hearing from groupslike World Vision who deal primarily with children," said Gordon King,president and founder of the company. "They're the people who see theneed and know what really helps the people at the time."

King also says he sits down with the groups in the aftermath of adisaster to assess what really worked and what could be changed in thepacks to further alleviate the suffering.

King also notes the importance of pre-positioning more suppliescloser to likely disaster areas.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for organizations to raisemoney for such an investment. People are more inclined to give after adisaster hits than to help buy insurance for the region.

But to groups whose primary mission is to provide disaster relief,it is only a matter of time before the next tragedy strikes. Those whohave supplies ready and within range of the disaster will be the oneswho are able to truly alleviate suffering and offer hope to victimsbefore it is too late.