11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nicaragua Ten Years After Hurricane Mitch

Just ten years ago, tens of thousands of us sent help to victims of Central America's worst-ever natural disaster -- Hurricane Mitch. You may remember the terrible images we saw on television and in our daily newspaper: millions homeless, over 10,000 dead, lush agricultural fields washed away, even the collapse of a volcanic crater lake which flooded areas 20 miles away and buried alive a village of 2000 poor Nicaraguans.

I write today with happier news about "Nicaragua Ten Years After" because other similar recoveries from more recent natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Asia Tsunami and the Sichuan (China) Earthquake are also well underway. The recent Hurricanes Gustav and Ike are still in their early recovery stages.

It's important to understand that the immediacy of a disaster response can also be followed (with more of our help) by a long term recovery period that leaves those affected by Mother Nature or even armed conflict better off than they were before. Of course, it takes hard work by the affected communities themselves; but it also requires the support of friends from outside the impact area.

Los Angeles-based Operation USA, to name just one relief group, conducted emergency airlifts and sea shipments of supplies to Nicaragua in the days and weeks which followed "Mitch", and also began a series of rebuilding projects -- rebuilding houses, schools and clinics, and provided psychosocial counselors to cope with the immense loss suffered by twenty percent of Nicaragua's entire population.

One such relief site was Santa Rosa, a small village of 600 people created originally in the mid-1980s as a wartime resettlement camp of literally 200 acres of land with little water, no shelter and little chance at surviving beyond providing a subsistence income for its hard working residents. The village was hit hard by "Mitch" in 1998 and many of its makeshift homes and most of its agricultural fields were inundated or blown away.

Operation USA began a series of projects in Santa Rosa ranging from rebuilding houses and the pre-school to adding a long series of recovery and, later, economic development projects -- microcredit loans for every family in the village to stimulate economic activity (pig raising, poultry raising, sewing, art, ceramics, biogas, varied agricultural projects) -- and careful infrastructure investments -- hydropower projects, electrification of all its buildings, an extensive irrigation and fresh water system, a village library, a feeding center for its smallest residents, full scholarships for high school and post high school education of its children and the creation of a village NGO which is the model for Nicaragua at the village level.

These have yielded not only a vastly better life for Santa Rosa but have benefited a network of neighboring villages. All this was because of the receipt of continued attention and support from outside Nicaragua.

This was quite a departure from Red Cross-type activities which focus on immediate needs and then shift away to the next disaster taking unspent money collected on the backs of disaster victims

We're in a time of global economic chaos. That chaos is significantly magnified in poor countries as gasoline costs over $4 a gallon, food is increasingly in short supply, and the effect of global warming on agriculture is more severe year by year. Feeble economies are unlikely to be a priority to donor governments and individual donors to nonprofits as their own economies and bank accounts contract to the point of collapse.

This calls for more selectivity in charitable giving, more "Smart Aid" and merits our support. Let's hope an Obama Administration refocuses our official foreign aid program to emphasize smarter relief and development investments like those made after "Mitch" a decade ago.