Wednesday, December 29, 2004

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Disease threatened to double the death toll from Asia’s devastating earthquake and tidal waves as the body count yesterday rose to more than 65,000, with tens of thousands still missing.

“There is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami,” Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the United Nations’ World Health Organization, told reporters in Geneva.

“The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities,” Dr. Nabarro warned.

Mourners in Sri Lanka used their bare hands to dig graves, while hungry islanders in Indonesia turned to looting in the aftermath of Asia’s devastating tsunami.

Thousands more bodies were found in Indonesia, dramatically increasing the death toll across 11 nations in southern Asia and eastern Africa to more than 65,000.

As the scope of the disaster unfolded, international agencies and developed nations mounted history’s biggest relief effort, with at least $100 million pledged thus far and more expected amid new appeals for aid.

By last night, massive C-130 and other cargo planes loaded with blankets, food and water-purification kits clogged runways in Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives and elsewhere in an arc of destruction from the Horn of Africa to the palm-covered beaches of Indonesia.

Indonesia’s Health Ministry early today raised the death toll to more than 32,000 in parts of Sumatra, the island closest to the epicenter of Sunday’s earthquake, which sent a giant tsunami, or tidal waves, rolling across the Indian Ocean.

“The death toll is now 32,502 people,” a ministry spokesman told Reuters.

But the ministry figure did not count deaths in areas that soldiers and rescue workers still were unable to reach — including the district of Meulaboh, where earlier, the head of another agency estimated that 10,000 people were killed.

Television footage from overflights of Meulaboh and other parts of the west coast showed thousands of homes underwater.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke of “frightening reports” from outlying parts of Aceh province.

Refugees fleeing the coast described surviving for days on little more than coconuts before reaching Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra’s northern tip, which was largely flattened by the quake.

“The sea was full of bodies,” said Sukardi Kasdi, who reached the capital from his town of Surang.

The west coast of Sumatra, facing Sunday’s epicenter, took the brunt of both the quake and the killer waves. With aid not arriving quick enough, desperate residents in Meulaboh and other towns in Aceh began to loot, officials said.

“People are looting, but not because they are evil, but they are hungry,” said Red Cross official Irman Rachmat in Banda Aceh.

In Sri Lanka, the toll also mounted. Workers pulled 802 bodies from a train that was flung off its tracks when the gigantic waves hit. More than 200 of the bodies — unclaimed by relatives — were buried yesterday in a mass grave next to the tracks, which had been lifted and twisted like a roller coaster by the raging water.

More than 21,700 people died in Sri Lanka, more than 9,000 in India and more than 1,500 in Thailand, with numbers expected to rise. Scores also were killed in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh and the Maldives. The giant waves raced nearly 3,000 miles to east Africa, causing deaths in Somalia, Tanzania and Seychelles.

And there were still zones of death where officials could not get a precise count. Sumatra’s western coast was one, and another was India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, located just north of Sumatra.

Indian officials told Agence France-Presse today that their death toll reached 9,233, including 4,000 in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and another 4,500 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Europeans desperately sought relatives missing from holidays in Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand, where bodies littered the once-crowded beach resorts.

Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree.

So far, more than 80 Westerners have been confirmed dead across the region — including 12 Americans. But a British Consulate official in Thailand warned that hundreds more foreign tourists were likely killed in the country’s resorts.

Sunday’s massive quake of magnitude 9.0 off the Indonesian island of Sumatra sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one that devastated the Portuguese capital of Lisbon in 1755 and killed an estimated 60,000 people.

Amid the devastation, however, were some miraculous stories of survival. In Malaysia, a 20-day-old baby was found alive on a floating mattress. She and her family were later reunited. A Hong Kong couple vacationing in Thailand clung to a mattress for six hours.

In Sri Lanka, more than 300 people crammed into the Infant Jesus Church at Orrs Hill, located on high ground from their ravaged fishing villages. Families and children slept on pews and the cement floor.

“We had never seen the sea looking like that. It was like as if a calm sea had suddenly become a raging monster,” said one woman, Haalima, recalling the giant wave that swept away her 5-year-old grandson, Adil.

Death was so widespread in Sri Lanka that the government waived rules requiring an autopsy before burial. In Muslim villages in the east of the otherwise Buddhist-dominated island, some survivors, lacking shovels, used giant iron forks used for communal cooking and their hands to scrape out graves for several dozen victims, half of them children.

According to the doctors trade union in Sri Lanka today, the island nation lost at least 45 of its physicians in the tidal wave.

The first international deliveries of food were being delivered to ravaged areas, as humanitarian agencies — accustomed to disasters in one or two countries at time — tried to organize to help on an unprecedented geographic scale, across 11 nations.

A dozen trucks loaded with more than 160 tons of rice, lentils and sugar sent by the U.N. World Food Program, left Colombo yesterday for Sri Lanka’s southern and eastern coasts and a second shipment was planned for overnight.

U.N. officials said about 175 tons of rice arrived in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and six tons of medical supplies were to arrive by today. Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas. In Sri Lanka, the Health Ministry dispatched 300 physicians to the disaster zone by helicopter.

• Betsy Pisik contributed to this report in New York.

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