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Towns Found Flattened in Sumatra

Rescuers Push Into Remote Areas; Deaths in South Asia Hit 121,000

By Alan Sipress and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 31, 2004; 11:48 AM

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Dec. 30 -- Airborne military patrols scoured inaccessible sections of Sumatra island Thursday and discovered that swaths of land were inundated and roads, villages and bridges had vanished. After helicopter flyovers, rescuers estimated more than 80,000 deaths in the region and described the scene as catastrophic.

"The scale of devastation is huge, bigger than imagined," said Emil Agustiono, a government official helping coordinate the Aceh relief effort.

Sri Lankans search for bodies on Kalmuni beach. Many people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere fled and climbed onto roofs after India issued a tsunami warning Thursday that turned out to be a false alarm. (Thomas White -- Reuters)

In Meulaboh, 110 miles southeast of this provincial capital in northern Sumatra, rescuers reported that lagoons had formed where communities had disappeared. Officials expressed fears that 40,000 of the 120,000 residents could have died in Meulaboh and the area around it. The district is about 60 miles from the epicenter of Sunday's undersea earthquake, which registered a magnitude of 9.0 and generated a massive tsunami that killed at least 121,000 people in 12 countries in South Asia and Africa.

The force of the tsunami swept the sea to the foot of mountains more than a mile inland, according to a reporter for the Reuters news agency who surveyed the area. Mangled cars littered streets, and fishing boats were strewn on top of other debris, but the city's maroon-domed mosque remained standing, the reporter said.

As governments of the 12 countries struggled to restore basic needs -- potable water, medicines and food for millions affected by the disaster -- relief operations were spurred on around the world. But the poorest survivors still wandered aimlessly amid rubble looking to bury their dead, or waited for food that had not arrived. The World Health Organization reported that "between three and five million people in the region are unable to access the basic requirements they need to stay alive -- clean water, adequate shelter, food, sanitation and healthcare."

The first survivors were airlifted Thursday from Meulaboh to Banda Aceh. A U.S. Navy battle group raced to Sumatra as the United States and dozens of other countries shuttled tons of supplies to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, the countries that were the hardest hit. Although governments and international agencies had pledged at least a half a billion dollars to an unprecedented recovery effort, basic needs were still barely being met in the stricken area.

[The Indonesia government said on Friday it would host an international tsunami summit on Jan. 6 to try to obtain more aid, the Reuters news agency reported.]

On Thursday, in Banda Aceh, corpses lay along the muddy streets, the military could not meet a deadline for clearing them away that had been imposed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after touring the area Tuesday.

The Indian government issued an erroneous tsunami warning Thursday, and people fled the southern Indian coast on jammed roads and climbed roofs in coastal areas of Sri Lanka and Thailand. Hours later, the government said the alert was a false alarm. There is no coordinated tsunami warning system in the region.

Periodic aftershocks from the Sunday quake were registered in South Asia on Thursday. Lava was spewing from a volcano on an island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago off the coasts of Burma and Indonesia, officials told news agencies. Previously, the crater emitted only gas.

Relief supplies were arriving from the United States, Australia, Europe and other Asian countries. Distribution centers were being established at Medan on Sumatra, south of Aceh, and at U Tapao, a Thai air base used by the United States during the Vietnam War. As many as 1,000 U.S. military personnel were expected at the Thai base in the next week, according to U.S. military officials.

President Bush said he was sending Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his brother, to the disaster zone on Sunday. "In this hour of critical need, America is joining with other nations and international organizations to do everything possible to provide assistance and relief to the victims and their families," he said.

Four days after one of the largest earthquakes in history triggered a tsunami that smashed into coastlines from Indonesia to Somalia, half a billion dollars has been pledged to the relief effort, the United Nations said.

European nations have pledged millions in aid to South Asia relief. Britain said it was donating $95 million; Sweden promised $75.5 million; Spain, $68 million; and France, $57 million. Aside from the military commitment, the United States has announced an initial $35 million aid package. The largest single donation so far has been $250 million from the World Bank, announced Thursday by the organization's president, James D. Wolfensohn.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the donations have been generous but the need is vast.

"This is an unprecedented global catastrophe, and it requires an unprecedented global response," Annan said at a news conference.

"It is conceivable that one may not be able to fulfill every possible need for each of the countries and each of the coastal villages that has been destroyed. We should do all our best to really help them," he said. "If we fall short, we can at least be satisfied that we did everything possible."

The Indonesian Health Ministry reported that it expected further increases in the death toll. Sri Lanka reported 27,268 dead and about 1 million people displaced; India, at least 7,368 deaths, with 8,000 missing and possibly dead in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; Thailand, 4,500 dead; Somalia, 114; Burma, also known as Myanmar, 65; Malaysia, 65; Maldives, 69; Tanzania, 10; Bangladesh, two; and Kenya, one.


Indonesian officials continued to struggle with the lack of infrastructure in Aceh province.

Many local government officials were killed in the disaster, and authorities said others were missing or too traumatized to function. Officials said the federal government would send 300 workers from various ministries to replace them and reestablish government services.

At least 500,000 people were displaced and 100,000 homes destroyed in Aceh, officials said. A major highway to towns on the west coast is impassable, and there is no access by land.

Oliver Hall, head of the U.N. disaster assessment and coordination team in Indonesia, said local officials were "clearly in a state of great shock" and that "there's huge devastation in Banda Aceh and along the west coast."

"There's no extra water available," he added, warning that volunteers must bring their own provisions to the region. "There's no communication equipment available. There's no extra food available. It's a wasteland."

At night, Meulaboh is completely dark, and the electrical grid will take perhaps three months to fully restore, Agustiono, the government official, said. In Calong, a town north of Meulaboh, he said, only 5,000 of 15,000 people were reported to have survived. Most of the rescuers on the west coast are with the Indonesian military, supported by a Malaysian air force team, he said.

While the airport at Banda Aceh is busy with the arrival of relief-related flights, residents said little was getting through to them. Hungry crowds jostled around aid workers who tried to deliver biscuits to relieve hunger. Some drivers dared not stop.

Sri Lanka

Victims on the northern coast hit journalists and a soldier with wooden poles during a meeting with Prime Minister Mahina Rajapakse, who was led to safety by his bodyguards. Rajapakse was on a tour of affected areas in a region that has been controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels, who have fought government forces for 20 years.

The rebels, who seek independence in the northern and eastern portions of the country, appealed for international relief aid this week. There has been a cease-fire in the area since 2002, when Norway brokered a truce.

The Indian government reported that it had provided extensive rescue and relief assistance to Sri Lanka and other affected countries, including search ships and planes, medical camps staffed with doctors and equipment, air drops of supplies and $25 million in aid.

As international relief flights arrived in Sri Lanka, a brewery in Colombo, the capital, switched from beer to bottled water to help survivors, according to the relief organization Oxfam International.

Oxfam, which said it was assisting in the effort, reported that the Lion Brewery plant had produced 120,000 bottles of water for shipment to affected areas.

"With so much loss of life, how could you not help?" said Nausha Raheem, the manager of the plant.


In India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, where more than 4,000 people died, police and fire departments were put on high alert after the false alarm of a new tsunami.

The Indian Home Ministry was unapologetic. A.K. Ragosti, a senior official, said there was "no need to panic. We issued the alert as a precautionary measure."

Still, it was clear that the absence of a coordinated warning system in South Asia had caused large-scale panic. A warning system in the Pacific Ocean, which monitors several seismic networks, is designed to alert nations that potentially destructive waves could hit their coastlines within three to 14 hours.

This week, India announced plans to set up its own early warning system within two years. Meanwhile, the United Nations said Wednesday it believes the current warning system could easily be extended to countries around the Indian Ocean within a year.


German, Swiss, Dutch, Australian and other forensic teams were helping identify bodies that were filling morgues. Many European tourists remained among the several thousand people missing along Thailand's southern coast, which is dotted with smashed and wrecked cars and building material.

"It will be challenging," said Karl Kent, head of a 17-member Australian federal police team, according to Reuters. "The scale is of a magnitude that Australia and other countries have not experienced," he said.

Nakashima reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Staff writers Robin Wright in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in Madras, India, contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company