- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The United States will help Indian Ocean countries if they decide to develop an early warning system to anticipate future tidal waves like the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.

The U.S. government “would certainly do everything it can” to help establish a system like the one in the Pacific Ocean, said Mr. Powell, who met with leaders of Thailand and Indonesia to review relief efforts and discuss future aid.

Most of the more than 139,000 victims of the tsunami — spread across 12 countries from Somalia to Malaysia — had little or no warning before fast-moving, giant waves hit their shores.

“Tsunamis of the kind we saw last weekend are not that common in this part of the world, so perhaps enough attention hasn’t been given to putting in place the right kind of warning system,” Mr. Powell said in Phuket, a resort island popular with foreigners, where thousands were killed last week.

Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai told a U.S. fact-finding delegation led by Mr. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that Thailand is ready to spend $20 million to set up its own early warning system, but that he would prefer a coordinated effort by countries in the region. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has formed a task force to determine why the country received so little warning.

Mr. Surakiart also appealed for continued help from U.S. forensic experts, some of whom are already on the scene, in helping identify thousands of recovered bodies. Mr. Surakiart said the decomposition of the corpses was so severe that it was impossible to tell by sight whether the victims were Asian or European.

Mr. Powell and Mr. Bush got their first close look at the scope of the damage, flying low over Phuket island’s western beaches before being briefed by U.S. consular and forensic experts in the city of Phuket.

The tour showed the capriciousness of the killer wave, with some beachfront marinas and houses apparently left untouched while properties a short distance away were razed to the foundation and boats and cars were scattered like toys.

In Phuket, Mr. Powell and Mr. Bush walked past a series of large bulletin boards carrying portraits and photocopied pleas for information about the missing, who appeared to be equally divided between Thais and foreigners.

Earlier, the U.S. delegation toured an airport outside Bangkok where hangar after hangar was stuffed with supplies waiting to be shipped to needy areas of the country, including foodstuffs, bottled water, plastic buckets and stacks of caskets. Some in Thailand have complained about what they say is the slow and haphazard delivery of aid.

But Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the aid and money being rushed to the region is only a “temporary gateway” to a longer-term reconstruction program to rebuild devastated local economies and put people back to work.

“This is a lot better organized than I’ve seen in a lot of places,” he insisted.

Mr. Powell and Mr. Bush expected to get a more graphic view of the tsunami’s destructive force today when they fly to the Aceh province of Indonesia. Aceh, on the northwestern corner of Sumatra, bore the brunt of the wave’s destructive force, accounting for almost 70 percent of the more than 94,000 dead in Indonesia.

The Bush administration already has pledged nearly $19 million in direct humanitarian aid to Indonesia, and the country is expected to get a sizable chunk of the $350 million in additional aid promised by President Bush. Private U.S. companies, including Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and General Motors, have supplemented that already with $37.5 million in cash donations, as well as in-kind contributions.

Mr. Powell said an event such as the Dec. 26 tsunami, sparked by a massive undersea earthquake, occurs in a matter of hours and poses technical problems different from more slowly developing typhoons and hurricanes. He said a regional warning system would need to focus on how to get the word out and warn those in a tsunami’s path once it was detected.

Discussion of a regional system is likely to come up at tomorrow’s summit of Association of South East Asian Nations leaders here, which Mr. Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will attend.

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