- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — One of the largest U.S. military relief operations in history helped speed the pace of aid to desperate victims of Asia’s tsunami disaster yesterday, delivering critical supplies to haggard survivors in severe need of food and water.

Flying in and out of flattened villages, American helicopters carried water, biscuits and other bare necessities to ravaged Indonesian communities, some of which had been impossible to reach since a Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami ravaged coastlines in Asia and Africa.

Relief efforts still were hampered by the destruction of roads, ports and airfields, especially in Indonesia, where almost 14,000 more deaths were reported yesterday, bringing the total to more than 94,000 in that country and more than 137,000 overall. The arrival of U.S. warships and helicopters boosted the relief drive and offered a glimpse of the scope of devastation.

“There is nothing left to speak of,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vorce of San Diego, who was one of the helicopter pilots flying from the USS Abraham Lincoln to the northern tip of Sumatra, where the tsunami took its greatest toll.

The giant aircraft carrier and four other U.S. Navy vessels, crewed by more than 6,500 sailors and Marines, moved into position on Saturday off Indonesia to conduct one of the largest U.S. military operations in southern Asia since the Vietnam War.

From a low-flying helicopter, the 70 miles of shoreline south of the Aceh provincial capital, Banda Aceh, looked like a skeleton coast. Villages, one after the next, were obliterated. Concrete foundations were all that remained of most structures.

Only a few mosques remained intact, surrounded by wasteland. Thousands of emerald green rice paddies had been peeled away, replaced by fetid swamps, mangled tree trunks and sea slime.

Americans delivered aid to shattered communities along Sumatra’s coast. In the town of Kuede Teunom, 8,000 of its 18,000 people died. A few minutes after landing, the helicopter lifted off and another descended.

The U.S. military also sent a flotilla of Marines and water-purifying equipment to Sri Lanka.

The aid deliveries were a mere drop in an ocean of need — but priceless nonetheless, said Indonesian military spokesman Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki.

“They’ve helped us reach places we have not had the time, or manpower, or equipment to go to,” said Col. Basuki, noting that Americans had helped clear helicopter landing spaces for the arrival of future supplies. “It really speeds up the distribution of aid to [Sumatra’s] west coast.”

Elsewhere, reporters were given their first look at the wiped-out village of Malacca, on the Indian island of Car Nicobar, where the only structure still standing was a statue of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

About 4,000 people are missing on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, an Indian territory off the coast of Malaysia.

In India, which suffered more than 9,000 deaths, officials insisted that there was still hope for survivors. But the search was essentially over in Tamil Nadu state, the southern region which bore the brunt of the sea surge in the country. Veera Shanmuga Moni, a top administrator of Tamil Nadu’s Nagappattinam district, said about 600 people on the missing list would be declared dead soon.

For the first time since the tsunami struck eight days ago, humanitarian agencies voiced optimism.

“I’m happy to report that we are not having too many difficulties with our distribution,” said Heather Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, which passed out 50 tons of rice and 8 tons of biscuits and dried noodles in Aceh province on Saturday, their first day of operation.

Four Indonesian navy frigates loaded with supplies arrived off the coast of the fishing village of Meulaboh, one of Aceh’s worst-hit spots. Others flew into Meulaboh by helicopter, including five American doctors from the USS Shoup and teams from the Japanese Red Cross and Spanish Red Cross with enough supplies to care for 30,000 people and provide clean water for 40,000.

“Survivors have nothing,” said Red Cross health specialist Caroline Dunn in Geneva. “Shelter, food, clean water and medicine all are lacking.”

In Banda Aceh, on Sumatra’s hard-hit northwestern tip, 24-year-old fisherman Tengku Sofyan was discovered barely alive under his beached boat — the first survivor found in three days.

Witnesses said Mr. Sofyan was at sea when the tsunami hit Dec. 26. His boat was tossed onto the beach at Lampulo, where he was trapped for a week without food and water. He was the first missing victim discovered alive since Friday.

“He’s in extremely fragile condition, especially mentally,” said Dr. Irwan Azwar, who treated the fisherman.

After a week of digging through rubble, rescue workers said the chances of finding more of the missing alive bordered on hoping for miracles.

“If you survived the earthquake, you probably were killed by the tsunami,” said Lamsar Sipahutar, the head of the search team in Indonesia.

Nevertheless, in Aceh, some already were starting to look to the future.

UNICEF spokesman John Budd said refugees were eager to get their children back to school and resume normal life. He said the agency was planning to establish 600 schools to serve 120,000 youngsters in stricken parts of Sumatra.

The disaster’s confirmed toll surpassed 137,000 with the confirmation of almost 14,000 additional deaths in Indonesia. U.N. officials said they expected it to top 150,000, although the final total might never be known. Five million people were left homeless.

In Sri Lanka, where nearly 29,000 people were killed, more than 20 countries have sent or pledged aid. Medical teams from Japan, Israel, China, India and Russia were among the more than 500 local and foreign physicians dispatched to the disaster zone. Rice, sugar and lentils were being transported daily on two dozen trucks from the U.N. World Food Program.

In Thailand, where the death toll approached 5,000, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the world’s compassion and generosity was “more than we expected.”

“We have had no experience like this before,” he said. “But now, we have a lot of expertise and experts to help us. That is what we are really happy with.”



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