U.S. aid reaches coast of Sumatra

A Seahawk helicopter departs the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln for the tsunami ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh on Saturday.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 12:05 a.m.
Substantial aid finally began reaching desperate refugees in devastated areas of northern Sumatra on Saturday as U.S. warships, led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, arrived offshore and a fleet of helicopters airlifted critical supplies to stricken towns in Aceh province.
Flying through pounding rains, nine Sea Hawk helicopters from the Lincoln ferried food, water, medicine, tents and other supplies from warehouses at Banda Aceh airport to refugees in decimated Indonesian coastal towns and inland villages that had been virtually cut off when a tsunami destroyed roads, bridges and communications a week ago.
It was the beginning of what was expected to become a steady stream of international aid for Indonesia and a dozen other countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean, where estimates of the death toll hovered between 140,000 and 150,000. The number of seriously injured was believed to exceed 500,000, and the likelihood of epidemics of cholera and other diseases threatened to send the totals much higher.
As the first trickle of supplies broke through, the global relief effort to save an estimated 5 million homeless survivors of last weekend's undersea earthquake and tsunami was reinforced on Saturday when Japan increased its pledge of aid from $30 million to $500 million, the largest contribution thus far. Combined with a $350 million pledge by the United States on Friday, this brought total contributions from more than 40 nations to $2 billion, according to the United Nations.
The United Nations listed the logistical needs, citing especially helicopters and ships, air-traffic control units, machinery to repair damaged airstrips, landing craft, trucks, fuel storage and handling units, water-treatment units, generators, medical kits several hundred communication systems.
The United Nations will start an appeal for funds on Jan. 6 from New York and suggested that Secretary-General Kofi Annan would travel to Jakarta to lead the appeal, and private donations, which have flooded into charitable organizations around the world, are expected to add hundreds of millions more to the relief programs.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, in his first comments on the disaster, said the world faced a long-term relief commitment. "At first it seemed a terrible disaster, a terrible tragedy," he said. "But I think as the days have gone on, people have recognized it as a global catastrophe. There will be months, if not years, of work ahead of us."
President Bush also spoke of a similar commitment. "We offer our love and compassion, and our assurance that America will be there to help," Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush cited a host of problems - communications infrastructure, roads and medical facilities damaged or washed out - but promised that help was coming, and, indeed, had already begun to arrive.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, were expected to arrive in the region on Saturday with a team of experts to tour some stricken areas and to assess the needs. Their schedule was still being worked out, officials said.
The need is enormous, especially in Aceh province, where whole towns and villages were destroyed. Meulaboh, a once-scenic fishing community on the west coast of Aceh, was flattened by the tsunami, and as many as 40,000 of the 120,000 residents were killed. It lay buried under mountains of mud and debris on Saturday as Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, flew in to see the devastation.
Other first-hand reports of the devastation in Aceh were provided by the pilots and crew members of the helicopters that, from dawn to sunset on New Year's Day, shuttled 25,000 pounds of supplies to refugees. "There is nothing left to speak of at these coastal communities," Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vorce, a pilot from San Diego, told The Associated Press.
Besides airdrops by the U.S. helicopters to refugees, fleets of cargo planes from Australia, New Zealand and other nations continued to land at Banda Aceh and Medan, ferrying in tons of supplies. But bad roads, destroyed bridges, a lack of fuel and trucks, and other problems continued to hamper the distribution.
While the Abraham Lincoln and four accompanying ships represented the vanguard of U.S. emergency aid to Indonesia, U.S. officials said seven more vessels led by the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard were steaming west from the South China Sea with more supplies and were expected to be off the coast of Sri Lanka in the coming week, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Military officials said that another convoy, six slower-moving ships loaded with food, water, blankets and a 500-bed portable hospital, was en route from Guam, but was not expected to reach the stricken region for about two weeks.
U.S. Navy Capt. Rodger Welch, with the operations directorate of the military's Pacific Command, said late Saturday that the U.S. relief mission likely was the largest in the region in at least 50 years. "And we are only beginning this effort," he added.
About 10,000 to 12,000 American military personnel were involved, mostly aboard the Lincoln and Bonhomme Richard groups.
In Sri Lanka, flash floods on Saturday forced the evacuation of thousands of people from low-lying areas hard hit by the tsunami, which killed more than 28,700 there. At least 15 camps where 30,000 refugees had been sheltering were evacuated after storms dumped 13 inches of rain over the eastern coastal region.
Weeklong efforts to bury the dead in Sri Lanka and coastal areas of India were winding down, and government and private aid workers said they were turning their attention increasingly to sheltering the survivors in more sanitary refugee camps while the homes of an estimated 1 million people are rebuilt.
"This is where we are going to see a rise in communicable diseases, diarrhea, measles, upper respiratory infections," said David Overlack, a health care specialist surveying camps in Sri Lanka for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
World Health Organization workers have noted "a slight increase in the reporting of diarrheal illness" in tsunami affected areas of Sri Lanka and Indonesia, David Nabarro, an official of the U.N. agency, said in an interview Saturday.
But the increase does not mean an epidemic, Nabarro said.
There have been no outbreaks of cholera or other diseases, he said, adding that it is still too early for such outbreaks to occur.
Aid workers praised Sri Lankan officials and volunteers in particular for their efforts to bury the dead quickly and to give 600,000 homeless people shelter in schools, temples and mosques. A vast outpouring of donations from ordinary Sri Lankans has also prevented shortages of food and clothing, officials said.
Jeffrey J. Lunstead, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, said the first planeload of American relief supplies had arrived in Sri Lanka on Saturday - plastic sheeting to house 3,600 people and 5,400 cans of fresh water. He said most of the aid would be aimed at reconstruction, rather than emergency food and medicine.
To that end, American military officials in the capital, Colombo, said 1,500 Marines and 20 helicopters would be deployed in the next few days to clear debris and aid survivors in devastated areas of Sri Lanka. The first contingent of 200 was expected to arrive on Sunday.

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