- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — A U.S. aircraft carrier arrived off the coast of Sumatra yesterday, with its helicopters dropping off relief supplies from dawn to dusk to grieving and trauma-stricken survivors of last Sunday’s tsunami.

Those survivors were rattled late last night when a magnitude 5.9 earthquake rocked the island, the second strong aftershock in two days. But there were no reports of further damage or injuries.

Global pledges of aid reached $2 billion with a fresh pledge of $500 million from Tokyo, and the U.S. military began one of the biggest relief missions in history.

After the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, a deluge from the skies deepened the misery for survivors yesterday, triggering flash floods in Sri Lanka that sent thousands of evacuees fleeing and increasing the threat of deadly disease.

Several roads leading to Ampara — one of the hardest-hit towns — were flooded, preventing relief trucks from arriving, said Neville Wijesinghe, a senior police officer. Bureaucratic delays, fuel shortages, impassable roads and long distances also impeded supply efforts.

In the northern part of Sri Lanka, which is controlled by Tamil rebels, villagers used kerosene to cremate bodies.

Elsewhere throughout the devastated Indian Ocean rim, the world’s aid efforts shifted into high gear in ways big and small. Elephant convoys, for example, were put to work in Thailand.

“We mourn, we cry and our hearts weep to witness thousands of victims sprawled everywhere,” said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, touring the damage on Sumatra island, which bore the brunt of both the Dec. 26 earthquake and the waves it created.

President Bush ordered American flags lowered to half-staff. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Mr. Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, of hurricane-devastated Florida, prepared to leave for the region today.

Desperate, homeless villagers mobbed teams of Americans as a dozen Seahawk helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln shuttled supplies.

“They came from all directions, crawling under the craft, knocking on the pilot’s door, pushing to get into the cabin,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Brennan Zwack. “But when they saw we had no more food inside, they backed away, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ ”

“The mob decided how we distributed the food. There were so many hands outstretched, I don’t think any package touched the ground,” said Petty Officer Zwack of Sioux Falls, S.D.

More than a dozen other American ships were en route to southern Asian waters, with the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel carrying Marines, headed for Sri Lanka, which along with Indonesia was the worst-hit.

The mission involves thousands of sailors and Marines, along with some 1,000 land-based troops.

The confirmed death toll from the quake and tsunami that hit a week ago today passed 123,000, and the United Nations has said the estimated number was approaching 150,000. Thailand said that more than 4,800 had died, including 2,230 foreigners, and that it expects its death toll to reach 8,000.

Thailand’s Vietnam War-era air base of Utapao has become the airlift hub for the region.

C-130 transport planes were already conducting sorties to Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Sumatran cities of Medan and Banda Aceh, according to a statement Saturday by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

U.S. Navy medical staff also are on the ground in Meulaboh, a wrecked fishing village where several thousand bodies have been recovered. The Navy is considering a request from Jakarta to establish a field hospital there.

Aid has been piling up in regional airports, and officials have had trouble getting it out to the areas in need. The U.S. military was expected to ease the bottleneck.

The Lincoln’s operations officer, Cmdr. Matthew J. Faletti, said the New Year’s Day effort off Sumatra was focused on ferrying emergency relief, including biscuits, energy drinks and instant noodles, to communities along a 120-mile stretch of seacoast south of Banda Aceh.

Most of the aid supplies delivered yesterday were picked up from Australian and other foreign shipments at Banda Aceh, and then rushed by the helicopters to coastal towns.

Meanwhile, more amazing stories of survival emerged.

The Indonesian Red Cross in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, reportedly dug out a survivor from the ruins of a house where he had been buried since the tsunami struck.

The rescuers heard Ichsan Azmil’s cries for help. After he was pulled out Friday, he asked for water and was taken to a hospital for treatment of cuts and bruises.

In the historic port town of Galle, Sri Lanka, several Buddha statues of cement and plaster were found unscathed amid collapsed brick walls in the center of the devastated city.

To many residents, it was a divine sign.

“The people are not living according to religious virtues,” said Sumana, a Buddhist monk in an orange robe who sheltered himself from the sun under a black umbrella.

The hunt for loved ones dragged on with tens of thousands still missing. Among the missing were some 3,500 Swedes and 1,000 Germans, and hundreds of others from Scandinavia, Italy and Belgium.

Hunger and disease were the biggest threats on India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, which the Indian government has largely been keeping off-limits to foreign-aid agencies.

“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 the Indian Parliament, Manoranjan Bhakta.

Island officials say at least 3,754 persons were missing amid crumbled homes, downed trees and mounds of dead animals. V.V. Bhat, chief secretary of the islands, said the missing could not be presumed dead because they could have survived in coconut groves that dot the islands.

In the Thai resort of Phuket, five elephants, normally used to haul logs in forests, were being sent to pull heavy debris in areas that are too hilly or muddy for vehicles.

Thailand’s official death count was 4,812, with nearly half of them foreigners. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has warned the figure is likely to reach 8,000.

Western health officials headed to devastated areas across Sri Lanka after officials warned about possible disease outbreaks among the 1 million people seeking shelter in 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.”

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