President Bush promised yesterday to continue U.S. aid to tsunami-ravaged South Asia well after the initial attention fades, saying a "long-term commitment" is required to allow the millions of victims to rebuild their lives.
Speaking before about 500 employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development and representatives of more than two dozen private aid organizations, Bush said the United States has a "duty" to help the tsunami's victims "get back on their feet."
"This is one of those projects that's not going to happen overnight," Bush said in remarks at the Ronald Reagan Building. "The intense scrutiny may dissipate, and probably will, but our focus has got to stay on this part of the world."
Bush, who was criticized by some international aid officials for what they saw as a sluggish initial response to the Dec. 26 disaster, has since assumed a lead role in the relief efforts. He has pledged $350 million in U.S. aid -- a figure that he has indicated will increase as needs demand. So far, about $78 million of that money has been spent, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Beyond the money committed by the government, the U.S. military has been providing emergency relief at a cost of as much as $6 million a day. Lawmakers have said they expect the administration to send an emergency budget request to cover tsunami relief, including the Pentagon's costs.
In addition, Bush has named two former presidents -- his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton -- to spearhead a private fundraising effort. Yesterday, Clinton launched a $45 million appeal in conjunction with UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, to provide clean water and other help to survivors of the catastrophe.
The tsunami, which was touched off by a powerful earthquake near the Indonesian coast, has so far claimed more than 150,000 lives, while leaving 5 million people homeless and in need of food and drinking water.
Worldwide, the response to the disaster has been overwhelming. U.S. relief agencies have raised more than $350 million in donations, while other governments have pledged about $4 billion. "A little more than two weeks ago, the world witnessed one of the worst displays of natural destruction in history," Bush said. "Since that time, the world has witnessed one of history's greatest displays of compassion."
Before speaking, Bush was briefed on the situation in South Asia by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and USAID Administrator Andrew S. Natsios, both of whom just returned from the affected region. "The pictures do not do the devastation justice," Bush said. "They don't tell the whole story. . . . The devastation was on a scale that none of them had ever experienced. I think Colin referred to Banda Aceh as something the equivalent of Hiroshima."
Bush also met yesterday with experts from several U.S. agencies for a briefing on plans to expand the existing tsunami warning system, which mostly covers the West Coast of the United States as well as countries bordering the Pacific Ocean.
The amount of aid pouring into South Asia in the wake of the tsunami has heartened many veterans of relief work. But some warned that while the Indian Ocean tsunami presented a particularly dramatic case, other regions of the world remain in dire need of assistance.
"We are getting the numbers where they need to be, and there is clearly more commitment from the government," said Gayle E. Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a public policy organization. "But there are other parts of the world where the need is just as acute."