- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Rescuers piled up bodies Monday along southern Asian coastlines devastated by tidal waves that obliterated seaside towns and killed more than 22,000 people in 10 countries. With thousands missing and the death toll expected to climb far higher, aid agencies and nations rushed to help millions of people left homeless or without clean water.

Hundreds of children were buried in mass graves in India, and morgues and hospitals struggled to cope with the catastrophe. Somalia reported hundreds of deaths, some 3,000 miles away from the earthquake off Indonesia that sent tsunamis raging across the Indian Ocean.

The International Red Cross reported 23,700 deaths and expressed concern about waterborne diseases like malaria and cholera. Jan Egeland, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, said millions of people were affected - by lost homes, polluted drinking water, destroyed sanitation - and that the cost of the damage would “probably be many billions of dollars.”

“We cannot fathom the cost of these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have gone,” he told reporters.

The United States dispatched disaster teams Monday and prepared a $15 million aid package to the Asian countries hit by a massive earthquake and tsunamis. Eight Americans were killed, and U.S. officials were seeking to contact hundreds of Americans who remain unaccounted for in the region, Secretary of State Colin Powell said. “We will do everything we can to immediately help,” Powell said.

The count of the dead rose sharply a day after the magnitude 9 quake struck beneath the Indian Ocean off Indonesia’s island of Sumatra - the most powerful earthquake in the world in four decades. Government and aid officials suggested the toll could jump even further, citing unconfirmed reports of thousands more deaths on Sumatra and on India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, areas closest to the quake’s epicenter.

Walls of water sped away from the quake’s epicenter at more than 500 mph before crashing into the region’s shorelines, sweeping people and fishing villages out to sea.

The governments of Indonesia and Thailand conceded that public warnings came too late or not at all. But officials insisted they could not know the seriousness of the threat because no tsunami warning system exists for the Indian Ocean.

Rescuers converged on beaches and islands throughout the region to search for survivors, and offers of aid poured in from around the globe, as troops in the region struggled to deliver urgently needed aid. Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed rival, offered assistance.

Chaos erupted at the airport in Phuket, Thailand, as hundreds of tourists, many wounded and weeping, tried to board planes.

Sri Lanka said more than 10,000 people were killed along its coastlines, and Tamil rebels said 2,000 people died in its territory, raising that country’s toll to more than 12,000.

Indonesia reported about 5,000 deaths and India 4,000. Thailand - a Western tourist hotspot - said hundreds of people were dead and thousands more were missing. Deaths also were reported in Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Somalia. The Red Cross reported 6,000 deaths in India and three deaths in the Seychelles, part of its total of 23,700.

With communications still difficult with the areas closest to the epicenter, officials predicted more deaths there. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the death toll on the island of Sumatra could climb to 10,000.

On the remote Car Nicobar island, an Indian territory 150 miles northwest of Sumatra, Police Chief S.B. Deol told New Delhi Television he had reports another 3,000 people may have died. If confirmed, that would raise India’s toll to 7,000 and the overall number to 25,000.

“The Andaman and Nicobar islands have been really badly hit,” said Hakan Sandbladh, senior health officer at the Geneva headquarters of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, noting that unconfirmed reports put the death toll at 13,000 on the islands.

A Somali presidential spokesman said an unknown number of people - but in the hundreds - died and entire villages disappeared on the African country’s coastline. “All of the fishermen who went to sea (Sunday) haven’t come back,” Yusuf Ismail said.

In Bandah Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, 150 miles from the quake’s epicenter, dozens of bloated bodies littered the streets as soldiers and desperate relatives searched for survivors. Some 500 bodies collected by emergency workers lay under plastic tents, rotting in the tropical heat.

“We have ordered 15,000 troops into the field to search for survivors,” Indonesian military spokesman Edy Sulistiadi said. “They are mostly retrieving corpses.”

Unlike other areas, Bandah Aceh also suffered from the quake itself. The city’s mall was reduced to a pile of rubble and its mosque was leaning precariously.

Refugees in nearby Lhokseumawe complained that little or no aid had reached them. The city’s hospital said it was running out of medicine. Villagers near the town picked through the debris of their ruined houses amid the smell of decomposing bodies.

One man, Rajali, said his wife and two children were killed and he could not find dry ground to bury them to follow Islamic tradition. “What shall I do?” said the 55-year-old man, who, like many Indonesians, goes by a single name. “I don’t know where to bury my wife and children.”

The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu reported thousands of deaths. Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa called the scene “an extraordinary calamity of such colossal proportions that the damage has been unprecedented.”

Nearby beaches resembled open-air mortuaries. In Cuddalore, red-eyed parents buried more than 150 children in a mass grave covered over by a bulldozer.

The tsunamis came without warning. Witnesses said sea waters at first retreated far out into the ocean, only to return at a vicious pace. Some regions reported a crashing wall of water 20 feet high.

“The water went back, back, back, so far away, and everyone wondered what it was - a full moon or what? Then we saw the wave come, and we ran,” said Katri Seppanen, who was in Thailand, on Phuket island’s popular Patong beach.

Sri Lanka and Indonesia said at least 1 million people were driven from their homes in each country. Warships in Thailand steamed to remote tropical island resorts to search for survivors as air force helicopters in Sri Lanka and India rushed food and medicine to stricken areas.

In Sri Lanka - an island nation some 1,000 miles west of the epicenter - about 25,000 troops were deployed to crack down on sporadic, small-scale looting and to help in rescue efforts. About 200 inmates escaped from a prison in coastal Matara.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake’s magnitude was 9.0 - the strongest since a 9.2-magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964 and the fourth-largest in a century.

The quake occurred more than 6 miles deep and has been followed by powerful aftershocks. A 620-mile section of a geological plate shifted, triggering the tsunamis.

Countries around the world had people among the dead. Britain reported 11 of its citizens had died; Norway 10; Sweden 9; Japan 9; Germany four; Denmark three.

Those numbers likely would rise. Sri Lanka said 72 foreign tourists were killed, and Thailand said 35 of the dead were foreigners.

President Bush expressed his condolences over the “terrible loss of life and suffering.” From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II led appeals for aid.

Aid agencies and governments around the world began pouring relief supplies into the region Monday. Japan, China, Russia and Israel were among the countries sending teams of experts.

Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam, warned that without swift action more people would die from contaminated drinking water.

In Thailand, Gen. Chaisit Shinawatra, the army chief, said the United States has offered to send troops stationed on Japan’s Okinawa island. Thailand was considering the offer.

Tsunamis as large as Sunday’s happen only a few times a century. A tsunami is a series of traveling ocean waves generated by geological disturbances near the ocean floor. With nothing to stop them, the waves can race across the ocean like the crack of a bullwhip, gaining momentum over thousands of miles.

An international tsunami warning system was started in 1965, after the Alaska quake, to advise coastal communities of a potentially killer wave.

Member states include the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America. But because tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, no system exists there.

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