- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Cargo planes touched down with aid yesterday, bearing everything from lentils to water purifiers to help survivors facing the threat of epidemic after this week’s quake-tsunami catastrophe.

The first Indonesian military teams reached the devastated west coast of Sumatra island, finding thousands of bodies and increasing the death toll across 12 nations to about 77,000.

The International Red Cross warned that the toll could surpass 100,000.

The race was on to try to prevent an outbreak of diseases and to curb food shortages among millions of people left homeless — crises the U.N. health agency said could kill as many as the waves and quake.

Sri Lanka said it was getting its first reports of measles and diarrhea. Paramedics in southern India began vaccinating 65,000 survivors against cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery, and authorities sprayed bleaching powder on beaches where bodies have been recovered.

“Even those people who [didn’t lose homes] can’t get food. Nothing is available,” said the Rev. Raja Perera of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka’s second largest city, the hard-hit southern resort of Galle, where refugees from ravaged homes crowded into churches, Buddhist temples and mosques.

Mud and seawater covered town after town along Indonesia’s Sumatran coast and homes were flattened or torn apart, an Associated Press reporter saw on a helicopter overflight with the military commander of the island’s Aceh province. The only signs of life were a handful of villagers scavenging for food on the beach.

“We’re facing a disaster of unprecedented proportion in nature,” said Simon Missiri, head of the Red Cross’ Asia-Pacific division. “We’re talking about a staggering death toll.”

On hundreds of Web sites, the messages were brief but poignant: “Missing: Christina Blomee in Khao Lak,” or simply, “Where are you?”

All conveyed the aching desperation of people from around the world whose friends and family went off in search of holiday-season sun and sand and haven’t been heard from in four days.

But even as hope for the missing dwindled, survivors continued to turn up yesterday.

In Sri Lanka, where more than 22,000 died, a lone fisherman named Sini Mohammed Sarfudeen was rescued by an air force helicopter crew after clinging to his wave-tossed boat for three days.

Indian air force planes evacuated thousands of survivors from the remote island of Car Nicobar. Some of them had walked for days from their destroyed villages to reach a damaged but functioning airfield, where they were shuttled out 80 to 90 at a time.

Reporters and photographers were not allowed to leave the base to verify reports that about 8,000 people were dead there, but at the base alone, 67 officers and their families were missing and feared dead.

India’s death toll rose to nearly 7,000, while Indonesia’s stood at 45,268, but authorities said this did not include a full count from Sumatra’s western coast, where more than 10,000 deaths were suspected in one town alone.

On the streets of Banda Aceh, the main town of Sumatra’s Aceh province, the military managed to drop supplies from vehicles and fights broke out over packs of instant noodles.

Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, military commander of Aceh province, said after flying over the stricken region, that 75 percent of the west coast of Sumatra, the Florida-sized island close to the epicenter of the quake, was destroyed.

With tens of thousands of people still missing across the entire region, Peter Ress, Red Cross operations support chief, said the death toll could top 100,000. More than 500,000 were reported injured.

“We have little hope, except for individual miracles,” Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the Accor hotel group, said of the search for thousands of tourists and locals missing from beach resorts of southern Thailand — including 2,000 Scandinavians.

The State Department said 12 Americans died in the disaster — seven in Sri Lanka and five in Thailand. About 2,000 to 3,000 Americans were unaccounted for.

The Pentagon says it will divert several U.S. warships and helicopters to the region, some of which can produce up to 90,000 gallons of drinking water a day.

Without clean water, respiratory and waterborne diseases could break out within days, putting millions at “grave risk,” UNICEF said.

“Standing water can be just as deadly as moving water,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “The floods have contaminated the water systems, leaving people with little choice but to use unclean surface water.”

Near Banda Aceh, trucks dumped more than 1,000 bloated, unidentified bodies into pits. There was no choice, given the danger of disease and the difficulty of identifying any of the dead, said military Col. Achmad Yani Basuki.

Thailand said it had more than 1,800 dead and a total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Seychelles, Tanzania and Kenya.

In Sri Lanka, four planes arrived in the capital bringing a mobile hospital from Finland, a water-purification plant from Germany, doctors and medicine from Japan and aid workers from Britain, the Red Cross said.

Supplies that included 175 tons of rice and 100 doctors reached Banda Aceh, but officials said they were having difficulty moving it out to other areas.

Widespread looting was reported in Thailand’s devastated resort islands of Phuket and Phi Phi, where European and Australian tourists left valuables behind in wrecked hotels when they fled — or were swept away.

An international airlift was under way to ferry critical aid and medicine to Phuket and to take home shellshocked travelers, some with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. France, Australia, Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden were sending flights.

The world’s biggest reinsurer, Germany’s Munich Re, estimated the damage to buildings and foundations in the affected regions would be at least $13.6 billion.

Relief donations came in from all parts of the globe, from governments and from ordinary people who gave blood, money — even frequent-flier miles — to help.

Taxi drivers in Singapore put donation cans in their cars. In Thailand, volunteers used trucks with loudspeakers to solicit donations of food and clothing, and there were long lines to donate blood at the Red Cross.

Hong Kong’s kung fu movie hero Jackie Chan gave $64,000 to UNICEF, and Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, also of Hong Kong, gave $3.1 million to relief efforts.

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