- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

State Department officials say they still have no idea how many Americans may be missing in the Indian Ocean tsunami more than a week after the disaster, but expect the final tally may go as high as 100.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said about 5,000 U.S. citizens still are “unaccounted for,” but consular officials say that figure represents only the number of “outstanding inquiries” from relatives and friends — not the actual number of people.

Many names appear on the list of inquiries, compiled from phone calls, more than once. A significant number of the callers who used the department’s designated number, 888/407-4747, provided very general information, such as that a person had plans to travel to Asia for the holidays.

Some of those who called inquired about people in places as far from the affected Indian Ocean region as Ecuador, officials said.

“There is not a one-to-one correlation between inquiries and individuals. There is some duplication,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. “I couldn’t give you a precise number of individuals we are looking for.”

A consular official said later that even an approximate number was not available.

“We have general ideas, but we have to follow up and resolve every single inquiry on the list,” the official said.

Mr. Ereli said the State Department has received about 20,000 inquiries since the Dec. 26 tsunami, caused by a powerful earthquake off the northern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

“We have been able to satisfactorily respond to three-quarters of those inquiries, or about 15,000,” he said. “That leaves us within the neighborhood of 5,000 inquiries that we have not been able to nail down.”

Officials said the number of American fatalities, which stands at 15, will definitely increase. But it could range from several dozen to more than 100, they said.

The death toll, however, is not likely to be as high as the several hundred citizens of some European countries, for whom Thailand and Sri Lanka are popular tourist destinations, the officials said.

They pointed out that the calls received in the past week have been very helpful in the effort to find and help Americans who suffered from the tsunami. But they also asked that people who have called and have since heard from the person they reported as missing to call again so the person’s name can be taken off the list.

“Similarly, we would urge people in the region, if you have access to a phone and you haven’t contacted your family, please do so, because you may not be aware of it, but they may be calling about you,” Mr. Ereli said.

What makes working from the list particularly difficult is that some callers have given names of people who were not in any of the affected countries at the time of the tsunami — some had already left, while others had not yet arrived — because they did not have specific enough information, the officials said.

In such cases, the U.S. embassies and consulates work with immigration authorities to determine whether and when a person entered and left the country, Mr. Ereli said. If a person has been in the country, the next points of contact are hotels and local authorities, he added.

He said embassy employees try to meet as many returning Americans as they can at airports and provide assistance. Those who have lost their belongings are issued temporary passports and given $100 for emergency needs.

The State Department has two task forces working around the clock in Washington and dozens of consular officers on the ground helping to track down U.S. citizens.

“We are drawing on our consular experts in the region to come and provide temporary duty and assist those already in Thailand, already in Sri Lanka, already in Indonesia to handle the increased workload,” Mr. Ereli said. “As, I think, we need more people, we’ll draw on other consular officials from basically a wider pool.”

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