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Tsunami Aid Efforts Gain Momentum

Times Staff Writers

Relief helicopters stepped up delivery of supplies and more than 20 U.S. Navy ships converged on tsunami-battered southern Asia on Saturday, as United Nations officials reported that enough food to feed half a million people had reached some of the worst-hit areas.

The U.S. military’s disaster aid mission, one of the biggest in its history, concentrated on ferrying food and supplies to the ravaged northwest coast of Sumatra.

A steady stream of American Seahawk helicopters touched down near the epicenter of the disaster, delivering temporary shelters to the island, as the U.S. effort marked its first full day of operations.

Countries around the world Saturday escalated their response to the Asian disaster that has taken an estimated 150,000 lives.

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Government pledges of assistance reached nearly $2 billion as Japan promised $500 million to the cause. The U.N. set up a tent city in the Indonesian provincial capital Banda Aceh to manage the aid coming in, saying that enough food to feed 500,000 people for two months had arrived.

In Thailand, even elephants were drafted to help clear debris and bloated bodies from seaside resorts.

“Today, we’re really starting to get moving,” Bo Asplund, the U.N. Development Program’s resident coordinator in Indonesia, said in a telephone interview. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, which caused more than 6,000 deaths, he said, “it took three days for highly organized and very rich countries to bring in help. We’re really scrambling here.”

Getting the aid to those who need it remains a daunting problem in much of the region, officials acknowledge. Logjams at the region’s antiquated airfields, for instance, have kept much of the aid from being quickly dispatched.

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“The biggest constraints are the logistical bottlenecks by far,” U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland said at his daily briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York. “We need to make small, damaged airstrips some of the busiest airports in the world.”

Navy Capt. Rodger Welch, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said of the military’s mission, “We’re only beginning this effort. It will last until the host nations don’t need our help any more and can manage themselves.”

That could take years. Flash flooding in parts of Sri Lanka on Saturday and a magnitude 6.5 aftershock that jolted Sumatra sent thousands of evacuees fleeing for cover. And scenes of destruction across the 11 nations hit by the tsunami suggest an enormous reconstruction job ahead.

In Sri Lanka, on the road from the capital, Colombo, to Galle, the southern city that is emerging as a distribution and logistical hub for aid groups, the landscape is a testament to the destructive power of the wave and the frailty of man-made structures.

Community after community lies devastated, buildings gone, people missing, souls extinguished. There’s a bleak sameness: Boats sit on the land, parts of houses are in the sea, water and sewer pipes jut into the air, and telephone poles have been driven into the ground.

Everywhere are images that defy normal expectations: Fishing boats wedged like missiles into walls, twisted steel rebar poking from broken concrete like so many arthritic fingers, vehicles perched atop stone walls as though in some extreme sport. “This stretch of road used to be really beautiful, all green and sandy,” said Previne Wickramasinghe, a volunteer on an aid convoy who, like many others here, has put aside his normal life to help Sri Lanka get back on its feet. “Look. Now there’s nothing left.”

Still, there are signs of progress. Jerry Porodo, co-founder of Impakt, an independent group of international volunteers transporting aid, said detours were being created around washed-out roads, cutting down transport time. He said it took supply trucks as long as eight hours to make the 80-mile trip from Colombo to Galle immediately after the destruction, but the time had been reduced by as much as half.

And aid officials said the situation was rapidly entering a second phase. In the first few days after the disaster there were shortages of everything. Now huge aircraft from all over the world are landing in Colombo, bearing not just food, clothing and medicine, but bulldozers and roofing material.

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Although some shortages of basic supplies remain, the focus is increasingly on rebuilding roads, bridges and buildings, working out transportation bottlenecks and avoiding duplication.

In Indonesia, the government has partially restored electricity in the provincial capital Banda Aceh. Asplund said the U.N. has been able to drop boxes of high-nutrition biscuits, noodles and rice from helicopters to some hard-to-reach villages on the northern tip of Sumatra. But, he said, they needed ships to bring in large-scale supplies.

“The scale of the disaster is overwhelming,” said Asplund, a career humanitarian worker.

The U.S. effort is headed by a battle group led by the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and an amphibious assault vessel carrying Marines toward the region. In addition to the Seahawk helicopters ferrying relief, sailors aboard the carrier were busy baking bread that would be frozen and flown to survivors, Capt. Welch of the Pacific Command said.

The ship is also equipped with a 49-bed hospital ward and an operating room. The military had flown injured people to hospitals on land, but had yet to bring anyone to the carrier for treatment, the spokesman said.

A squadron from Guam, carrying equipment capable of generating 25,000 gallons of potable water a day, also was en route, the Pentagon said, as was a Marine expeditionary strike force, led by the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. Nine surveillance aircraft have also been deployed to gather information.

“I can’t think of anything in the last 50 years equal to this,” Welch said.

President Bush expressed anew the nation’s sorrow over what he has called the “epic disaster.” He ordered a weeklong ceremonial lowering of American flags at all U.S. installations.

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“We join the world in feeling enormous sadness over a great human tragedy,” Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “The carnage is of a scale that defies comprehension.”

A U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was scheduled to depart for the region today to survey relief efforts and the humanitarian crisis that has caused widespread death and trauma and left more than 1 million homeless in 11 countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Saturday that he would visit Indonesia, thought to be the worst-hit nation, this week to launch a global appeal to fund the next six months of emergency and recovery work across the region.

Annan told ABC’s “This Week” in an interview to be aired today that he would join Asian leaders at a conference in Jakarta on Jan. 6 to ask for even more funds to sustain the long recovery. He estimated that rebuilding the stricken region would take five to 10 years and billions of dollars.

To get relief supplies to areas where roads and airstrips had been washed away by the tsunami, Egeland appealed to a core group of donors for helicopters, air traffic control units, boats and landing craft, as well as cargo planes and several hundreds trucks. It may take “many days” to reach every stricken area, he warned.

Military logistics “are as valuable as cash or gold,” he said.

The U.N. official said the outpouring of global support was unprecedented.

“International compassion has never been like this,” Egeland said, adding that the pledges for last week’s disasters topped all the aid received by the United Nations in 2004 for the 20 top crises in the world combined.

In Washington, the State Department said the dead included 15 Americans, eight in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka, although officials feared that the number would rise.

Officials have been unable to assess numbers of missing or injured Americans, but the State Department said it had received 6,000 calls to a hotline set up last Sunday, said Lou Fintor, a department spokesman.

UNDP official Asplund said that the survivors in Banda Aceh were largely in shock, and there were still many bodies strewn around the area.

“Banda Aceh is totally silent. You hear nothing and see nobody.”

Egeland said the death toll would probably rise. “I am sure it will be higher than that, but I am also sure we will never know how many people were washed to sea and will never, ever be found,” he said. The Indonesian government has said that it can no longer keep track of the casualties.

Bush’s order to lower flags was the fourth straight day that he has taken some high-profile action after being criticized earlier in the week for responding too slowly and offering too little in relief funds.

The president is wrapping up an eight-day vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and is scheduled to return to the White House this afternoon. The tsunami struck the day Bush arrived here, but he did not speak directly about the crisis until Wednesday.

In his Saturday radio address, Bush offered additional reassurances of sustained U.S. assistance.

“As the people of this devastated region struggle to recover, we offer our love and compassion, and our assurance that America will be there to help.” On Friday, the president increased U.S. aid from $35 million to $350 million.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pentagon mission

A huge U.S. military disaster relief mission is underway in tsunami-ravaged areas. Additional help is en route from military facilities at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, and Guam, in the Pacific. Among the efforts:

1. An aircraft carrier battle group three miles off Aceh province, Sumatra,is ferrying in supplies and evacuating casualties from villages in a 120-mile stretch south of Banda Aceh.

2. Utapao air base, Thailand, is the airlift hub of the region; supplies are being flown to Jakarta and Sumatra’s Medan and Banda Aceh. Surveillance aircraft are helping in search and rescue.

3. Naval medical personnel are at work in Meulaboh, Sumatra.

4. Military assessment teams in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia are assisting those nations in getting supplies to the most critical areas.

In transit

A group of seven ships including a an amphibious assault ship and helicopters is headed from Guam to Sri Lanka.

Seven ships with the capacity to produce 90,000 gallons of fresh water per say are sailing from Diego Garcia and Guam.

A field hospital ship in Guam may be ordered to the area, depending on need and the findings of the assessment teams.

Sources: Department of Defense, Associated Press Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken

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Schmitt reported from Washington and Farley from New York. Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Texas, Mark Magnier in Galle, Sri Lanka, and Elizabeth Shogren in Washington contributed to this report.


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