- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Haggard and dehydrated survivors of Asia’s tsunami catastrophe flooded hospitals in the disaster zone yesterday, posing a new challenge for the global relief operation.

As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other U.S. officials toured the region, the fragility of the aid network was exposed when a cargo plane hit a herd of cows on an Indonesian runway, temporarily shutting down an airport vital to the effort to feed and clothe the homeless.

Relief workers said they expect the death toll to soar by tens of thousands because surveys of the western coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, which was closest to the epicenter of the quake, show it was hit much harder than previously thought. Scores of villages were flattened, and in some areas few survivors have been seen.

Another gripping tale of survival emerged from the Dec. 26 disaster that killed at least 150,000 people and left 5 million in need. Officials said an Indonesian man swept out to sea was found alive, afloat on tree branches and debris about 100 miles from shore.

Survivors, however, faced a newly emerging aid bottleneck as a growing fleet of helicopters picked up the injured and sick from ravaged villages and ferried them to overcrowded and undersupplied hospitals in the cities.

Meanwhile, a rarely used U.S. Navy hospital ship went through sea trials off San Diego and the U.S. military prepared to ship field hospitals to ravaged Asian states, U.S. defense officials said yesterday.

“Message is we’re prepared and we’re ready,” said William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

The U.S. military is assembling field hospitals that were used in Iraq and is prepared to fly or ship them to stricken areas if countries ask for them.

Pentagon officials were near a decision on whether to deploy the USNS Mercy, a San Diego-based ship with a 1,000 hospital bed capacity and a dozen operating rooms.

“We’re looking very carefully at deploying Mercy. In fact, we’ve got her on sea trials today to make sure that she’s ready to go,” said Adm. Thomas Fargo, head of the U.S. Pacific Command.

About a dozen people lay on stretchers on the sidewalk outside Fakina Hospital in Banda Aceh, capital of Indonesia’s hardest-hit Aceh province on Sumatra. Many of the hospital’s rooms had no power, walls were speckled with blood and doctors had run out of stands for intravenous fluid bags, hanging them instead from cords strung across the ceiling.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Leslie Ansag of Everett, Wash., a Navy medic from the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier off Sumatra to help the rescue and recovery effort.

The focus on aid needs intensified as world leaders headed to southern Asia to get a close look at the damage and work out a relief plan at a donor conference tomorrow in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

Mr. Powell, who visited Thailand and Indonesia yesterday, pledged America’s full support. The United States “will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need,” he said.

He said the outpouring of American aid and humanitarian help — the government has pledged $350 million and citizens are donating tens of millions more — could help Muslims see the United States in a better light.

“What it does in the Muslim world, the rest of the world, is giving an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action,” said Mr. Powell, who is accompanied by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Japan, which has pledged $500 million to aid efforts and is preparing to dispatch soldiers and aircraft to the disaster zone, sent a 20-member military team yesterday to study the region’s needs.

The main airport in Banda Aceh was closed for most of the day after a Boeing 737 relief plane hit cows that had wandered onto the runway. The closure stopped planes from using the airfield until the plane could be dragged away, although helicopters kept flying in and out. There was no word on how many aid flights were delayed.

Tomorrow’s aid conference in Jakarta and a subsequent disaster meeting in Kobe, Japan, are to focus on southern Asia’s need for a sensor system to issue early warnings of tsunamis.

Analysts say such a system would have cut casualties substantially, and the Thai government yesterday removed the head of its meteorological department, Suparerk Thantiratanawong, for failing to warn the nation of the impending disaster. More than 5,000 people were killed when waves slammed into Thai coastal communities.

“If he warned, the death toll would definitely have been minimized,” Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters.

Mr. Suparerk was assigned to work for six months to help develop a warning system similar to one the Japanese government uses to issue tsunami alerts within minutes of underwater earthquakes. Thai officials said they hoped for technical aid from Washington.

Despite the bottlenecks at hospitals, helicopters from the U.S. military and other nations continued to fly into devastated areas of Sumatra.

Pilot Lt. Ruben Ramos of San Juan, Puerto Rico, found a village where dozens of villagers bounded out of the forest and lined up, waiting patiently for aid packages. Almost all ran forward, thrusting out their hands and then pressing them to their hearts in a gesture of thanks.

Despite the awesome power of the waves, survivors continued to turn up — even at sea.

Rizal Sapura, 23, was rescued by a Malaysian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean about 100 miles off Aceh province, said Adrian Arokiasamy, a spokesman for shipping company K-Line Maritime Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.

Crewmen on the container ship returning to Malaysia from South Africa spotted him Monday evening clinging to the branches of a floating tree, Mr. Arokiasamy said.

“It was certainly a miraculous survival,” he said.

In India, the government halted the evacuation of island survivors whose homes were smashed by the killer waves, focusing instead on bringing relief directly to victims as demanded by aid groups.

The government, however, did not change its policy of barring international aid groups from the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, citing concerns for indigenous tribes living there and security at a military air base.

For the past week, more than 12,000 villagers were ferried from the archipelago to Port Blair, capital of the federally administered territory, to refugee camps. Others were sent to the mainland to seek work or stay with relatives until their homes were rebuilt as promised under an ambitious government program.

“There has been a change in strategy. Aid will be taken to their homes,” a relief official said on the condition of anonymity.

The large-scale transfers of survivors to Port Blair — where access is not restricted — and to the mainland had been criticized by aid organizations, who say India’s relief program is in disarray.

Saroj Das, regional manager of southern India for the British group ActionAid International, urged the government to reconsider the ban, given the size of the disaster.

“The whole world wants to respond to this crisis. Andaman and Nicobar should not be isolated from this relief effort,” he said.

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