Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday pledged $15 million to Asian nations hit by a tsunami that has killed more than 22,500 people, although the United Nations’ humanitarian-aid chief called the donation “stingy.”

“The United States, at the president’s direction, will be a leading partner in one of the most significant relief, rescue and recovery challenges that the world has ever known,” said White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.

But U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland suggested that the United States and other Western nations were being “stingy” with relief funds, saying there would be more available if taxes were raised.

“It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really,” the Norwegian-born U.N. official told reporters. “Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, [of] how rich we have become.”

“There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy,” he said, adding that politicians in the United States and Europe “believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It’s not true. They want to give more.”

In response to Mr. Egeland’s comments, Mr. Duffy pointed out that the United States is “the largest contributor to international relief and aid efforts, not only through the government, but through charitable organizations. The American people are very giving.”

Offers of aid have poured in from around the world in the past two days, with the European Union’s executive arm releasing $4 million in emergency aid and pledging an additional $27 million. Canada and several European nations — including Spain, Germany, Ireland and Belgium — each pledged about $1 million yesterday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell hinted that the $15 million U.S. offer was only the first installment of a larger aid package to those countries devastated by 30-foot waves triggered by a massive underwater earthquake.

“We also have to see this not just as a one-time thing,” he said. “Some 20-plus thousand lives have been lost in a few moments, but the lingering effects will be there for years.

“The damage that was caused, the rebuilding of schools and other facilities will take time,” he added. “So you need a quick infusion to stabilize the situation, take care of those who have been injured, get immediate relief supplies in, and then you begin planning for the longer haul.”

If that planning calls for significant food aid, the United States might have to scramble.

“Even before the crisis in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean, the demands for food aid were stretching capacity: demands in Sudan, demands in West Africa, demands in other areas hit by drought and fighting,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

“So even though we’re giving a lot, the demand is very high,” he added. “We’re going to have to look at, as we move forward, what we can do to meet that demand.”

Money and food are not the only types of aid being sent by the Bush administration. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also is sending a 21-member disaster-relief team to the region.

Also, the Pentagon has dispatched military patrol planes from the Pacific Fleet. President Bush has written letters of condolence to seven of the affected nations — Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, the Maldives and Malaysia.

Besides the United States, the largest single national donor was neighboring Australia, which offered $10 million and transportation aid.

“Australia will and should give more,” Prime Minister John Howard said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies made an initial appeal of $6.7 million, which the federation says it will probably increase.

Officials from relief agencies, including the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations, met yesterday in Geneva to coordinate their efforts. In New York, diplomats from six of the affected nations met with U.N. officials.

The United Nations and other aid organizations have deployed hundreds of disaster-recovery and humanitarian-response teams to the region, and officials warn that the cost of the disaster could quickly reach “many billions of dollars.”

“We may only know the full effect of this emergency weeks from now,” Mr. Egeland told reporters yesterday at the United Nations in New York. “The disaster affecting Southeast Asia is not the biggest in recorded history, but the effects could be the biggest because more people live in exposed areas than ever before.”

The tsunami-ravaged nations are particularly susceptible to epidemics as authorities struggle with thousands of corpses in unsanitary conditions. International organizations and nations including France, Japan, Israel, Kuwait, Hungary and others are sending medical personnel to some or all of the affected countries.

“The principal danger is that of diseases transmitted through water, especially malaria and diarrhea, and infections caught through respiration,” said Hakan Sandbladh, a Red Cross official in Geneva.

Groups such as Doctors Without Borders warned that catastrophes tend to help localized illnesses turn into full-blown epidemics.

The destruction of water and sewage pipes, the disruption of vaccination programs and the lack of attention to disease-carrying pests such as rats and mosquitoes exacerbated the risk, they said.

In this situation, the stagnant pools of water created by the tsunami could boost the numbers of mosquitoes and other insects that transmit tropical maladies such as malaria and dengue fever.

“The risk of epidemics is also linked to concentrations of people whose houses have been destroyed,” said Pauline Horrill of Doctors Without Borders.

Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse reported that a tsunami alert system in Hawaii that warns Pacific countries about devastating tidal waves detected the earthquake that led to the destruction across Indian Ocean nations.

But the absence of an alert system in Asia meant the information could not be sent out fast enough.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, established in 1949 after a huge wave killed more than 150 people in Hawaii, issued a bulletin at 3:14 p.m. local time or 8:14 a.m. in the affected area, when it detected an earthquake off Indonesia.

The NOAA’s information bulletin said there was a possibility of a tsunami near the earthquake’s epicenter, but that no destructive threat existed in the Pacific. The huge tidal waves instead swept across the Indian Ocean, killing people in 10 countries from Indonesia to Somalia.

• Betsy Pisik, reporting from the United Nations in New York, contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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