CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 29 -- President Bush said Wednesday that the United States will spearhead a worldwide effort to provide financial, military and humanitarian assistance to the Asian nations devastated by one of the world's deadliest natural disasters.
Speaking publicly for the first time since Sunday's Indian Ocean tsunami, Bush told reporters that the United States, India, Japan and Australia are forming an international coalition to provide immediate relief and rescue assistance, as well as longer-term help with rebuilding.
Bush said the initial U.S. pledge of $35 million in direct financial aid is "only the beginning of our help."
Administration officials say Bush will pledge substantially more as damage assessments are completed. In the meantime, the administration has dispatched military personnel and equipment, including seven water-producing ships and one hospital vessel, as well as health experts to help stem the spread of deadly diseases in the flooded areas.
"These past few days have brought loss and grief to the world that is beyond comprehension," Bush said from his Texas ranch. "And together the world will cope with their loss. We will prevail over the destruction."
Bush's remarks followed several days of criticism that the United States has not been as swift or as generous as other countries in its response. Although administration officials said they had to assess the destruction before making specific commitments, there has been an outpouring of contributions from Americans to private and international aid groups.
A partial tally of two days of donations to CARE, one of the largest humanitarian groups, indicated about $7 million has been raised, CARE officials said. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF reported unprecedented contributions of almost $7 million as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, said Jeffrey Towers, a vice president of the fund. Web site donations on a typical day at this time of year usually produce $15,000.
Bush was criticized for not taking a break from his vacation until Wednesday to address the issue in person and for offering an initial pledge of only $15 million in assistance. The administration was pressed Wednesday to explain the timing and amount of its relief pledge.
"Moving a carrier strike force and a Marine expeditionary unit within 72 hours should not be considered dillydallying," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said. "The planes are on the ground in Indonesia tonight." Rice and water-purification equipment have been unloaded in some stricken areas for distribution, U.S. officials noted.
Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said the United States had to await more detailed information. "We must respond to the needs assessed by technical experts on the ground or we're going to kill people," he said at a special State Department briefing.
But critics noted that the U.S. aid so far is about the equivalent of what the United States spends in seven hours for its military operations in Iraq. "We spend $35 million before breakfast every day in Iraq," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Leahy said Congress should include additional money for relief in upcoming spending measures for Iraq. Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said he was pleased that "the administration recognized that its initial offer of assistance was insufficient, and that it is now open to providing additional aid."
The usual U.S. contribution during major disasters is 25 to 33 percent of total international aid, according to J. Brian Atwood, a former USAID administrator. So far, the U.S. contribution is 13 percent of the $270 million in international aid that has been pledged, the United Nations said Wednesday.
Spain has pledged $68 million, almost twice what the United States has contributed so far. Japan has pledged $30 million, Britain $29 million, Australia $27.6 million, Germany $27 million, France $20.5 million and Denmark $15.5 million, the United Nations reported.
The current U.S. aid is also significantly lower than in other recent natural disasters. After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when about 9,000 people were killed and 3 million were left homeless in Central America, the United States provided $988 million in relief assistance.
In Crawford, Bush dismissed as "misinformed" a U.N. official's remark suggesting that the United States was stingy. He noted that the country spent $2.4 billion on disaster relief aid in 2004, far more than any other nation. U.S officials predicted the biggest-ever U.S. response to a natural disaster in the weeks ahead. In addition to the need for altruism, some officials see the disaster as an opportunity to show the world, especially Muslim nations, the compassionate side of America that Bush speaks of when talking about the war on terrorism.
The president signaled on Wednesday that he will be taking a more public role than in past natural disasters outside the United States, though aides said he remains reluctant about thrusting himself into the center of the catastrophe. Bush called on Americans to contribute money -- not food or clothes -- to relief efforts, and he pledged to lobby other countries to open their wallets. "I think it's very important for Americans who want to give to provide cash to organizations that will be able to focus resources and assets to meet specific needs," he said.
Another potential form of aid may be debt relief for the stricken countries, an idea put forward by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. After speaking to the leaders of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India for the first time since the tsunami, Bush said the United States will consider the German proposal for a debt-payment moratorium for Indonesia and Somalia. "We're still in the stage of immediate help," he said. "But, slowly but surely, the size of the problem will become known, particularly when it comes to rebuilding infrastructure and community to help these affected parts of the world get back up on their feet."
U.N. officials said they received no advance word about the U.S.-led aid effort. There was concern at the United Nations that this may have been a consequence of criticism that the United States had not been generous.
U.S. disaster assistance relief teams are scheduled to arrive by Thursday in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to provide initial assessments of the damage and immediate needs, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at Wednesday's State Department briefing.
In the initial phase of relief operations, the United States is focusing most urgently on water and sanitation "because that is the greatest risk to people's lives," Natsios said. "What's happened basically is that water and sewage systems are now combined because of the water surges that took place and the destruction that followed, and as a result, people are drinking sewage water," he said. "And that will substantially increase the risk of communicable disease and diarrheal disease, which could kill many people in epidemics if they get out of control." Three other areas of concern are food, medical care and shelter, he said.
The United States is also assisting in ways not covered by the $35 million, including sending Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials to the region to help protect residents from diseases that some experts worry could double the number of victims.
Bush pledged to work with other nations to create an early-warning system that experts say could have averted thousands of deaths had one been in place in the Indian Ocean. The United States has one in place in the Pacific, but Bush said he was not sure if it is adequate to protect Alaska, Hawaii and other areas.
"Clearly there was not a proper warning system in place for that part of the world, and it seems to me it makes sense for the world to come together to develop a warning system that will help all nations," Bush said.
The president asked Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to investigate whether the United States is adequately prepared for tsunamis.
Wright reported from Washington. Staff writer Helen Dewar and researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.