- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — It was a half-hour helicopter ride over hell.

A U.S. team led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got a close-up look at the carnage and devastation wreaked by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami on this provincial Indonesian capital, a scene of obliterated neighborhoods and ruined lives that left the Americans shaken.

“I’ve been in war and I’ve been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this,” Mr. Powell said minutes after exiting a Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopter at Banda Aceh’s Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport, the hub of relief operations in the region.

Later, at a Jakarta gathering of countries affected by the tsunami catastrophe, as well as U.S. and regional powers, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined a new $977 million relief and longer-term development program to fund food, water, health care and reconstruction.

Mr. Annan said the region was in “a race against time.” He added that the tragedy has helped to bring the international community closer together.

“The past 11 days have been among the darkest in our lifetime, but we have also seen the world coming together with emphasis not on our differences but on what unites us,” he said.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono kicked off the meeting, which also sought to spotlight the creation of an early warning system for Indian Ocean nations that lost more than 139,000 people in the world’s worst natural disaster.

He told delegates from 26 nations and aid groups that a tsunami warning system similar to one that has long been established in the Pacific should be set up in the Indian Ocean.

“The cost of putting up a similar system on the Indian Ocean rim should be much less. At any rate as a world community, we should not be counting costs today, so that in the future we will not be counting lives,” the Indonesian leader said.

Also attending today’s Jakarta talks were European Union President Jose Manuel Barroso and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

On his Aceh flight, Mr. Powell, noting the cars and boats pushed by the 30-foot waves right up to the foothills nearly a mile from the shoreline, said, “I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave.”

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Andrew Natsios said nothing in his long career dealing with humanitarian disasters compared to what he saw in Indonesia, home to at least 94,000 of the estimated 139,000-plus victims of the killer wave.

“It almost looked like a small nuclear bomb hit the country,” said Mr. Natsios. “I was stunned by it and I have been dealing with disasters like this for 15 years.”

The helicopter tour proved an emotional highlight of Mr. Powell’s tour of Southeast Asian countries hit by the tsunami.

The fast-moving waves which reached speeds approaching 500 mph gave residents on low-lying coastal areas here little chance. Once-teeming neighborhoods were virtually wiped out, and dirty brackish water still covered what two weeks ago was a bustling waterfront.

An industrial barge washed up just 100 yards from a destroyed industrial plant well inland, while another boat stood with its prow pointing to the sky, resting against a house.

Through the Seahawk’s open cargo doors, the U.S. delegation viewed once-substantial private homes reduced to rubble-strewn foundations, mangled radio antennas and crumpled water towers, lonely mosque minarets still standing where the entire surrounding neighborhood has disappeared, sea gulls, farm animals and a few lonely human scavengers trying to salvage something from the remains of the calamity.

At one point, the U.S. team saw a dozen rectangular black and orange tarps covering freshly discovered corpses lying in the tropical sun. A giant mass grave for victims, which receives a fresh infusion of bodies every afternoon, is located just five minutes from the airport where Mr. Powell and Mr. Bush landed.

In nearby villages, the waves were so powerful that even the debris was pushed out, leaving a brown, barren moonscape that bumped up against the lush surrounding highlands. The extent of the water’s advance was sharply etched into the landscape, bisecting the countryside into sections of brown and green.

Mr. Powell noted that damage in the capital was only a small snapshot of the devastation stretching into both directions along the coast of Aceh province, which sits at the northwest tip of one of Indonesia’s largest islands. The epicenter of the undersea earthquake that caused the tsunami was just 30 miles from the Aceh coastline, and the one-two punch also took out much of the coastal road that was a transportation lifeline for many of the smaller cities and tiny villages along the shore.

Terry Hicks, a sailor aboard the U.S. carrier Abraham Lincoln, said U.S. cargo flights have been dropping 64,000 pounds a day of food, water and other supplies in the province, targeting remote villages and isolated islands.

He said the Abraham Lincoln crew had been on liberty in Hong Kong when the tsunami struck, reaching the region New Year’s Day and organizing relief missions at full tilt ever since.

“I was in Haiti in 1994 on a relief mission, but this has been much, much more intense,” he said.

Sensitive to reports that his visit might interfere with the frantic relief efforts under way, Mr. Powell had his U.S. government jet circle above the airport while the delegation made its two-hour visit here, to allow relief flights to continue.

Mr. Natsios said the United States had helped provide 60,000 water purification kits, tons of rice and soybeans and other supplies to Aceh victims. U.S. and Indonesian officials yesterday discussed how to speed up the number of giant C-130 cargo planes that can land at the provincial airport. U.S. officials have also announced a doubling of the number of helicopters taking part in the relief effort throughout the region.

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