U.S. now top relief provider


Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 31, 2004 at 11:31 p.m.
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - The United States upped its tsunami relief aid tenfold Friday as the world's ships and planes converged on devastated shores. Bottlenecks of supplies built up, fears of epidemics grew, and in an echo of 9-11's aftermath, people at a Thai resort scoured a bulletin board of 4,000 photos in search of the dead and missing.
Six days after the earthquake and tsunamis that ravaged 3,000 miles of African and Asian coastline, the confirmed death toll passed 121,000, and 5 million people were homeless. Remote Indian islanders were said to be facing starvation.
In an even more grave assessment, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland estimated the number of dead was approaching 150,000. ''The vast majority of those are in Indonesia,'' he said Friday, adding that the final death toll probably would never be known.
President Bush, his administration stung by criticism that its aid pledges were small and slow to materialize, raised the U.S. pledge from $35 million to $350 million. ''Our contributions will continue to be revised as the full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer,'' he said. France has promised $57 million, Britain $95 million, Sweden $75.5 million.
Emphasizing the U.S. role in the emergency, Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed relief efforts at a U.N. meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan Friday, before leaving for a weekend visit to the region to assess what more is needed.
An American military cargo jet brought blankets, medicine and the first of 80,000 body bags to Banda Aceh, the devastated Indonesian city near the quake epicenter. Nine U.S. military C-130 transports took off Friday from Utapao, the Thai base used by U.S. B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War, to rush supplies to the stricken resorts of southern Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, said Maj. Larry J. Redmon in Bangkok.
Other C-130s were sent by Australia and New Zealand, and the Indonesian government said two flights from 18 countries had reached Sumatra by Friday. But bureaucratic delays, impassable roads and long distances were blocking much of the blankets, bottled water, plastic sheeting and medicines from reaching the needy.
Convoys distributed sugar, rice and lentils in Sri Lanka; India dispatched a ship converted into a 50-bed hospital.
In the Andaman islands, a remote southern Indian archipelago, officials and volunteers struggled to deliver tons of rations, clothes, bedsheets, oil, and other items, hampered by lack of transportation.
''There is starvation. People haven't had food or water for at least five days. There are carcasses. There will be an epidemic,'' said Andaman's member of Parliament, Manoranjan Bhakta.
At popular Phuket resort in Thailand, people pored over photos of the dead and missing. ''At this point we hope against hope that they are still alive somewhere,'' said Canadian tourist Dan Kwan, hunting for his missing parents. Forensic teams in Thailand packed bodies in dry ice as the government announced its death toll had doubled to more than 4,500 people.
In Sri Lanka, TV channels devoted 10 minutes of every hour to reading the names and details of the missing.
A dozen U.S. Navy vessels including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln headed for the Indonesian and Sri Lankan coasts, about 2,000 miles apart, carrying supplies, medical teams and more than 40 helicopters to distribute them.
But the aid was stacking up. In an airport hangar in Medan, 280 miles south of Banda Aceh, thousands of boxes of basics such as drinking water, crackers and blankets had accumulated since Monday and were going nowhere.
''Hundreds of tons, it keeps coming in,'' said Rizal Nordin, governor of Northern Sumatra province. He blamed the backlog on an initial ''lack of coordination'' that was slowly improving.
The United States, India, Australia, Japan and the United Nations have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts. The Indian navy, which already has deployed 32 ships and 29 aircraft for tsunami relief and rescue work, was sending two more ships Friday to Indonesia.
Western health officials, including a 30-person team of U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy personnel, headed to devastated areas across Sri Lanka on Friday after officials warned about possible disease outbreaks among the 1 million seeking shelter in crowded camps.
''Our biggest battle and fear now is to prevent an epidemic from breaking out,'' said Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. ''Clean water and sanitation is our main concern.''
Ade Bachtiar, a volunteer nurse from Jakarta, arrived in Banda Aceh on Wednesday to help at a clinic set up in an abandoned souvenir shop.
''Yesterday, we could only stay open for about two hours due to the lack of electricity,'' he said. Nevertheless, he added, they treated 60 to 80 people, mainly closing and cleaning wounds.
''Medicine is running out, especially antiseptics,'' he said.
In the Andamans, hundreds of people poured into eight camps in Port Blair, the main town, having walked long distances through dense forests.
One survivor, G. Balan, told of fleeing his village only to reach a crocodile-infested lagoon.
''We realized that there was certain death on this side, so we decided to cross and take the risk,'' Balan said. ''The crocodiles were not looking. They were busy eating on the shore, where there were many human and animal bodies. It was hide-and-seek. But we swam across,'' he said.
''It still gives me a shiver. If they had seen me, they would have caught me by the stomach. They catch the soft part of the body and drag you away.''
In the hardest-hit country, Indonesia, the official death toll stood at about 80,000, but officials acknowledged the final number might never be known because the towering tsunami waves swept entire villages out to sea.
Sri Lanka reported about 28,500 deaths and India more than 7,700. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.

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