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Toll From Tsunami Rises to More Than 51,000

Threat of Hunger, Disease Looms as Reeling Nations Appeal for Aid

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; 6:27 PM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Dec. 28 -- Devastated coastal areas across South Asia struggled Tuesday to prevent hunger and outbreaks of disease as dazed survivors searched desperately for the missing two days after a tsunami surged across the region. The death toll rose to more than 51,000 people, a large percentage of them on this island nation in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lankan officials said Tuesday that the freakish, earthquake-driven waves had killed more than 18,700 people here, a dramatic increase from earlier calculations. They said many more were injured or missing and appealed for international aid to cope with a disaster they declared was beyond their ability to handle on their own.

Rescue workers comb through the devastation in Tonsai Bay, Phi Phi Island, Thailand. (Paula Bronstein - Getty Images)

While southern and eastern portions of Sri Lanka were among the hardest-hit areas, the tsunami killed people in 10 countries from Malaysia -- near the epicenter of the quake that struck Sunday morning off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra -- to Somalia, on Africa's east coast more than 3,000 miles away. The International Committee of the Red Cross warned of the potential for waterborne diseases such as cholera.

There were warnings throughout the affected area that the death toll might spike sharply higher.

In Indonesia, officials said Tuesday that the death toll rose to 27,000 -- more than two-thirds of the deaths in the western province of Aceh. In the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, 75 bodies lined the median strip down four blocks of Panglima Polim Street on Tuesday.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who toured Banda Aceh Tuesday, told reporters he has directed the local government to bury all bodies within two days.

"The last three days have been the most difficult days of my presidency, and most trying moment for my nation," he said. "I was devastated to witness the human casualties and destruction."

Yudhoyono said the government's response had been hampered by the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and police, disrupted communication, washed-out roads and fuel shortages.

The World Health Organization warned that possible cholera epidemics and malaria outbreaks could add to the toll in countries hit by Sunday's tsunami. "There is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami," David Nabarro, WHO's head of crisis operations, said at a news conference in Geneva, Reuters reported.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said that the quake and ensuing tsunami had affected millions of people, and he put the financial cost of the disaster in the billions. "We cannot fathom the cost of these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods have gone," he told reporters.

"The scale of the tragedy is massive," the president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, told the BBC. "Sri Lanka has never been hit by tidal waves or earthquakes or anything at all in its known history, so this is a grave tragedy which we have not been prepared for."

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said 11 American were among the dead. In addition, Powell told CNN that "a number have been wounded, and hundreds are yet unaccounted for. It doesn't mean that they have been lost or injured and we haven't found them in hospitals yet. We just haven't been able to run them all down because of difficult communications and people are still checking in with our consular officers."

The U.S. Agency for International Development offered $20 million in financial assistance to help with relief efforts in affected countries, adding to $15 million in help the United States pledged on Monday.

President Bush, who is spending the holidays at his Texas ranch, planned to make a short statement to reporters about the disaster on Wednesday, after a teleconference meeting with members of the National Security Council. "The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts," a White House official said Tuesday. "He didn’t want to make a symbolic statement about, 'We feel your pain.' Now we’ve had a chance to craft a coordinated response with the international community and the president will have words about our relief efforts."

India: 4,000-7,000 Dead

In India, officials on Monday put the death toll at more than 4,000 and as high as 7,000. Among the known dead, there were about 3,400 fatalities in the state of Tamil Nadu, where hundreds of fishermen were swept out to sea, as were strollers on a popular beach in Madras, the state capital. South of the capital, bulldozers dug mass graves for victims, including children, while desperate parents combed hospitals and morgues in search of those still missing. Rescue workers pulled bloated corpses from the sea and brought them ashore in motorboats.

As in Indonesia, Indian officials cautioned that the toll could continue to rise significantly. They expressed particular concern about the fate of residents of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal, which have spotty communications with the mainland.

Later Monday, a police official told private NDTV television that 3,000 people might have died in the islands, a figure that would push India's total to 7,000. "The Andaman and Nicobar islands have been really badly hit," Hakan Sandbladh, senior health officer of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva, told the Reuters news agency.

Thailand: 1,516 Dead

In Thailand, the Interior Ministry reported Tuesday that 1,516 people had died, more than 4,000 had been injured and thousands more were unaccounted for, the Associated Press reported. One of the dead was identified as Poom Jensen, 21, the Thai American grandson of King Bhumipol Adulyadej. Many of the victims were foreigners vacationing at tourist resorts in Thailand's southern islands.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the toll would likely rise. "We have a long way to go in collecting bodies," he told reporters after a visit to Phuket island, one of the country's most popular tourist destinations.

The Thai navy was called in to help with rescue efforts, and helicopters were reported to have rescued survivors on Ko Phi Phi, a nearby island. On Phuket, however, many tourists expressed anger at what they said was a poor response from rescue workers. An enormous wave rushed over the area's beaches about 10 a.m., but the first coast guard and military vessels did not arrive until several hours later to help search for survivors, witnesses said. Local police, however, used Jet Skis to pluck people from the sea.

"I sat on that beach and I watched and waited," said Mark Hayward, a Canadian advertising executive who was vacationing on Karon Beach, a major resort area on Phuket's west coast. The wave destroyed his hotel. "I never saw a police truck go by. I never saw a firetruck go by. It was three hours before the first vehicle with flashing lights came by."

Hayward said he was particularly incensed when Thai tourism police began announcing that more waves were on the way, three to four hours after the major destruction, something he said contributed to panic. "They made it look like they were on top of it," he said. "They weren't on top of it. There was nothing. People were on their own."

There were scenes of chaos at Phuket's airport as hundreds of tourists, many of them injured and in tears, competed for the few available seats on outgoing planes.

In Malaysia, authorities reported Tuesday that waves had killed at least 65 people, including an unknown number of foreign tourists. In Burma, about 90 people reportedly were killed, according to the AP; in Bangladesh, two; the Maldives, at least 52; in Seychelles, three; and in Somalia, where coastal villages were reported to have been inundated, at least 110, according to Ali Abdi Awaare, environment minister of the semiautonomous region Puntland, cited by the AP.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake Sunday morning was the fourth most severe since 1900, and the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It occurred at a depth of 6.2 miles, shifting a 620-mile section of subsurface tectonic plate. That triggered the massive sea surges that traveled for thousands of miles at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour.

Sri Lanka: 18,700 Dead

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island nation of about 20 million off the tip of southern India, was squarely in the path of the tsunami. While the modern-looking capital of Colombo was largely unscathed, the waves caused massive damage to lower-lying coastal communities, especially on the exposed southern and eastern coasts.

The pounding waves washed away fishing villages, a shantytown near Colombo and idyllic, palm-fringed beach resorts that catered to foreign tourists. In Sri Lanka, at least 72 foreign tourists, including two Americans, died in the disaster. Railroad tracks were ripped up and tour buses were tossed into the jungle like broken toys. Unclaimed bodies piled up in makeshift, unrefrigerated morgues.

In a shattered community of crude wooden shacks next to railroad tracks about 10 miles south of Colombo, families gathered Monday afternoon in front of their former homes, now reduced to scraps of kindling. Some sat listlessly in salvaged furniture as if they had no other place to go, which many, perhaps, did not. The hull of a fiberglass motorboat rested against a shop window.

An even grimmer scene unfolded nearby at the government hospital in Kalutura, where 58 corpses -- including those of three unidentified foreign tourists -- lay on the concrete floor of a small, unrefrigerated outbuilding. Among the visitors to the morgue was a Slovakian tour guide who was trying to determine whether any of the three -- including one woman still dressed in a black bathing suit -- had been among her tour group. Masking the stench with a handkerchief over her mouth and nose, she strained to make out any familiar features on the blackened and rapidly decomposing bodies.

"I'm just missing two clients and I'm trying to find them," said the guide, who declined to give her name.

Occasionally, a helicopter clattered overhead, and every now and then a pickup truck rolled down the coastal road with a load of food or medicine. But officials acknowledged that they did not have the resources to cope with the disaster, and they broadcast international appeals for dry rations such as rice and powdered milk as well as antibiotics and plastic sheeting for use in the construction of temporary housing.

Many of the homeless sought shelter in schools, Buddhist temples and churches while tourists stranded in the capital camped out in the city's convention center or the lobbies of five-star hotels, none of which had vacancies.

In the port of Galle in southern Sri Lanka, a 40-foot torrent of ocean enveloped a 17th-century Dutch fortress and then cascaded into the local bus station.

Police said at least 200 people were killed at the terminal; some of them drowned in their bus seats, others were crushed. By the end of the day, rows of corpses lay in the baking sun. The devastating scene was repeated along much of the coastline, a popular destination for foreign tourists.

Correspondents Peter S. Goodman in Phuket, Thailand, and Alan Sipress in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, staff writer Michael Dobbs in Galle, Sri Lanka, and special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in Sonankuppam, India, contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company