WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (RNS) -- The earthquake that hit El Salvador last weekend may be the 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 or flood or another earthquake hits a large group of people.

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

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

For example, the disaster packs already being distributed in El Salvador by groups like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and World Vision include water purification bottles, plastic sheeting for temporary shelter and some basic food and medical supplies.

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

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

An additional problem with such supplies is the increasingly difficult process of passing private shipments through customs. The contents must be unpacked and inspected carefully, often delaying the process longer.

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

But the increasing preparedness of groups specializing in relief means supplies are often in country or at a location less than a day away. World Vision uses Costa Rica as a supply center for much of Latin America. Dean Owen, public relations director for the organization, says in 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 an intriguing catalog featuring everything from generators to body bags. Its primary customers are nongovernmental organizations and the organization readily admits it fine-tunes its distribution based on the experience of its customers.

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for organizations to raise money for such an investment. People are more inclined to give after a disaster 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 who have supplies ready and within range of the disaster will be the ones who are able to truly alleviate suffering and offer hope to victims before it is too late.

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