- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The world’s ships and planes converged on devastated shores yesterday.

Bottlenecks of supplies developed, fears of epidemics grew, and people at a Thai resort scoured a bulletin board of 4,000 photos in search of the dead and missing.

Six days after the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged 3,000 miles of African and Asian coastline, the death toll was at least 121,000, and 5 million people were homeless. Remote Indian islanders were said to be facing starvation. A United Nations official warned that the toll might exceed 150,000 but did not give an update of deaths by country.

An American military cargo jet brought blankets, medicine and the first of 80,000 body bags to Banda Aceh, the devastated Indonesian city near the quake epicenter.

Nine U.S. military C-130 transports took off yesterday from Utapao, the Thai base used by U.S. bombers during the Vietnam War, to rush supplies to the stricken resorts of southern Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, said Maj. Larry J. Redmon in Bangkok.

Other C-130s were sent by Australia and New Zealand. The Indonesian government said two flights had reached Sumatra by yesterday.

Bureaucratic delays, impassable roads and long distances slowed the blankets, bottled water, plastic sheeting and medicine being brought to the needy.

Convoys distributed sugar, rice and lentils in Sri Lanka; India dispatched a ship converted into a 50-bed hospital.

In India’s Andaman islands, a remote southern archipelago, officials and volunteers struggled to deliver tons of rations, clothes, bedsheets, oil and other items. They were hampered by a lack of transportation.

“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.

At popular Phuket resort in Thailand, people pored over photos of the dead and missing.

“At this point we hope against hope that they are still alive somewhere,” said Canadian tourist Dan Kwan, hunting for his missing parents. He thought it was possible they were unconscious or unable to speak.

Forensic teams in Thailand packed bodies in dry ice as the government announced its death toll had doubled to more than 4,500 people, almost half of them vacationing foreigners.

In Sri Lanka, where more than 4,000 people were unaccounted for, TV channels devoted 10 minutes of every hour to reading the names and details of the missing.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Gov. Jeb Bush of hurricane-battered Florida were to head to the region this weekend and assess what more is needed.

A dozen U.S. Navy vessels including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln steamed toward the Indonesian and Sri Lankan coasts, about 2,000 miles apart, carrying supplies, medical teams and more than 40 helicopters to distribute them.

The aid was stacking up. In an airport hangar in Medan, 280 miles south of Banda Aceh, thousands of boxes of basics such as drinking water, crackers and blankets had accumulated since Monday.

“Hundreds of tons, it keeps coming in,” said Rizal Nordin, governor of Northern Sumatra province. He blamed the backlog on an initial “lack of coordination” that was slowly improving.

The United States, India, Australia, Japan and the United Nations have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts.

The Indian navy, which has already deployed 32 ships and 29 aircraft for tsunami relief and rescue work, was sending two more ships yesterday to Indonesia.

Western health officials, including a 30-person team of U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy personnel, headed to devastated areas across Sri Lanka yesterday after officials warned about potential disease outbreaks among the 1 million people seeking shelter in crowded 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.”

Ade Bachtiar, a volunteer nurse from Jakarta, arrived in Banda Aceh on Wednesday to help at a clinic set up in an abandoned souvenir shop.

“Yesterday, we could only stay open for about two hours due to the lack of electricity,” he said. But the clinic had treated 60 to 80 people, mainly by closing and cleaning wounds.

“Medicine is running out, especially antiseptics,” he said.

In the Andamans, hundreds of people poured into eight camps in Port Blair, the main town, having walked long distances through dense forests.

One survivor, G. Balan, told of fleeing his village only to reach a crocodile-infested lagoon.

“We realized that there was certain death on this side, so we decided to cross and take the risk,” Mr. Balan said. “The crocodiles were not looking. … It was hide-and-seek. But we swam across,” he said.

In the hardest-hit country, Indonesia, the official death toll stood at about 80,000, but officials acknowledged the final number might never be known because the towering tsunami waves swept entire villages out to sea.

Sri Lanka reported about 28,500 deaths and India more than 7,700. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.

In New York, Jan Egeland, emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, told reporters, “What we see is that the figures may be approaching 150,000 dead.”

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