UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 27 -- The huge underwater earthquake that drove a tsunami across the Indian Ocean is shaping up to be one of the most expensive and destructive natural disasters on record, requiring several billion dollars in international assistance, the top U.N. relief official said Monday.
The Bush administration pledged an initial $15 million in relief assistance and dispatched emergency relief teams and naval patrol aircraft to the region to conduct an assessment of the damage. White House spokesman Trent Duffy vowed on Monday that the United States, at President Bush's direction, "will be a leading partner in one of the most significant relief, rescue and recovery challenges the world has ever known."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that eight U.S. citizens have been confirmed dead and that the State Department is trying to account for hundreds of others who he said are not necessarily presumed injured or dead.
Bush and Powell extended their condolences to the leaders of seven nations that suffered the most. Powell singled out Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose grandson, Bhumi Jensen, 21, was killed by the tsunami during a water-scooter excursion in southern Thailand.
Powell, speaking to reporters at the State Department, did not say how much the United States is prepared to contribute to the relief effort but indicated that Monday's pledge would not be the last. "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 Bush administration sent a team of 21 emergency relief experts to the region to help coordinate efforts to distribute aid and to repair sanitation and health systems, said Ed Fox, assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"The first important thing will be to help in the removal of debris and disaster, and to help the people, not only those tragically killed, but the million or more who were also going to be displaced and will need shelter and food and clothing," he said.
Fox said that U.S. embassies in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and the Maldives have already distributed $400,000 in assistance. The United States is planning to provide $4 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The administration anticipates providing an additional $10 million in the weeks ahead, he said.
Jan Egeland, the United Nations' top relief official, spoke with representatives of U.N. humanitarian aid agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and independent relief organizations to prepare for what he described as one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts in history.
Egeland said that hundreds of relief planes from more than two dozen countries would transport supplies into the region within 48 hours. He said that he is seeking to identify local medical officials to help bury tens of thousands of corpses and animal carcasses "before they infect the drinking water." The World Food Program launched a $1.5 million appeal to feed hundreds of thousands of victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand.
"An enormous relief effort is underway," Egeland said at a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York. "We may only know the full extent of this tremendous emergency in weeks from now."
Determining the extent of damage has been hampered by the lack of access to some of the hardest-hit areas, including Sumatra and Banda Aceh in Indonesia. Egeland said that contact with U.N. staff members in those areas has been cut off since the tsunami struck, raising concern that they may have been killed.
"These people are trained to call us immediately, ask for assistance, start to organize assistance," he said. "And when we do not hear from them, we are afraid of what has happened. In the best case, they've just lost all of their belongings, including . . . their satellite phones and whatnot. We will know, hopefully tomorrow, what really happened."
Egeland said it is expected that the tsunami will cause greater death and hardship than any of its predecessors because its path covered thousands of miles of coastline. He added that the countries most severely battered -- India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand -- have experienced an unprecedented population explosion over the past 50 years, making millions of people vulnerable.
"Usually a natural disaster strikes one or two or three countries, not eight, nine enormous coastlines," he said.
International relief workers are preparing for a "second wave of destruction" brought about by the devastation of the region's water and sanitation systems, Egeland said. "Drinking water for millions has been polluted," he said. "Disease will be a result of that. And also acute respiratory disease always comes in the wake of these kind of massive disasters."
Egeland said that the death toll is likely to surpass that of Bam, Iran, where more than 26,000 people died in an earthquake that destroyed an entire village last Christmas season, and that the costs should far outstrip the hundreds of millions of dollars spent responding to that crisis.
"Exactly one year ago, we had a similar press conference regarding the Bam earthquake," he said. "We had then the biggest outpouring of international relief ever. I think we will have this one surpass that, and it should because it is a much bigger disaster."
"The cost of the devastation will be in the billions of dollars. It would probably be many billions of dollars," he said. "However, we cannot fathom the cost for these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped out."