BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Pilots dropped food to Indonesian villagers stranded among bloating corpses Thursday, while police in a devastated provincial capital stripped looters of their clothing and forced them to sit on the street as a warning to others. The death toll topped 119,000, and officials warned that 5 million people lack clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and medicine.
American planes delivered medical staff to Sri Lanka and body bags to Thailand, while a Thai air base used by B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War was becoming a hub for a U.S. military-led relief effort that will stretch along the Indian Ocean.
As a colossal international rescue effort struggled off the ground, relief efforts suffered a hitch when a false alarm of more killer waves sparked panic in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand and sent survivors and aid workers fleeing.
Indian women at a makeshift camp in a marriage hall said their children were going hungry. “For the past few days we were at least getting food,” said Selvi, 35, who uses one name. “Today, we didn’t even get that because aid workers fled the town after a fresh alert was issued this morning.”
Around the Indian Rim and beyond, families endured their fifth day of ignorance as to the fate of friends and relatives who had taken a holiday-season vacation to the sunny beaches of Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, which bore the brunt of the tsunami. Thousands were still missing, including at least 2,500 Swedes, more than 1,000 Germans and 500 each from France and Denmark.
The U.S. death toll was officially raised from 12 to 14, with seven dead in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka. Some 600 Americans who were listed as missing have been found, but several thousand had not been located four days after the disaster struck.
In Sri Lanka, Americans have been showing up at U.S. consular offices wearing bathing suits, with no money and no clothes, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Death tolls across the region continued to grow. Indonesia led with some 80,000. Sri Lanka reported 27,200 and India more than 7,300. Thailand said it had 2,404 confirmed dead, but announced today that 3,500 bodies had been discovered in one area and that most of those deaths had not been added into the official national toll. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
Military ships and planes rushed aid to Sumatra’s ravaged coast. Countless corpses strewn on the streets rotted under the tropical sun, causing a nearly unbearable stench.
In Banda Aceh, the devastated main city of northern Sumatra, soldiers and police guarded abandoned shops in the city’s market amid fears of looting. Three alleged looters caught by police were put on the street stripped to their underpants as a deterrent.
Food drops began along the coast, mostly of instant noodles and medicines, with some of the areas “hard to reach because they are surrounded by cliffs,” said Budi Aditutro, head of the government’s relief team.
The World Health Organization said it needed $40 million to supply 3 to 5 million people with clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and health care.
“Unless the necessary funds are urgently mobilized and coordinated in the field we could see as many fatalities from diseases as we have seen from the actual disaster itself,” said Dr. David Nabarro, head of crisis operations at WHO.
The next few days will be critical in controlling any potential outbreak of waterborne diseases in areas affected by the Indian Ocean tsunamis, Nabarro told the AP. The main threat to public health was drinking water that had been contaminated with feces.
“Wells, water supply systems just get broken, and then whatever water you do get is liable to be contaminated,” Nabarro said.
Governments have so far donated some $500 million, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, adding that he was “satisfied” by the response, even though another U.N. official earlier complained that the West had been “stingy” in the past.
Responding to persistent criticism that U.S. pledges have been slow to materialize and deliveries of aid not fast enough, Boucher ticked off a string of relief flights and declared: “Any implication we are not leading the way is wrong.”
The United States, India, Australia, Japan and the United Nations have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts.
In Galle, the graceful old city on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, German and Finnish teams helped set up water plants and mobile clinics.
A U.S. Air Force plane arrived in the capital, Colombo, bringing 26 medical specialists from the Army, Marines and Air Force, which form part of the Pacific Fleet Command.
American planes already have delivered 1,400 body bags to southern islands in Thailand, where Interior Minister Bhokin Balakula said more than 3,500 bodies have been found. Rescue and forensic teams from Australia, Japan, Germany, Israel and other nations fanned out across Thailand trying to find survivors and identify rapidly decomposing corpses.
“We have to have hope that we’ll find somebody,” said Ulf Langemeier, head of a German team that combed a wrecked resort with three body-detecting dogs under huge flood lamps early Thursday.
There likely will be up to 1,000 U.S. military personnel arriving in Thailand in the next week, Lt. Col. Scott Elder said. A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle group is heading from Hong Kong to the shores of Sumatra. The first of many Air Force C-130 cargo planes has landed in Indonesia with blankets, plastic sheeting and medicines.
Australian and New Zealand military cargo planes have flown supplies and water purification plants into Indonesia. A Pakistani navy ship has been diverted to rescue survivors on outlying islands in the Maldives. Singapore is sending eight helicopters, a navy ship and more than 500 military personnel.
One bit of encouraging news came out of the Maldives, the Indian Ocean archipelago that is the world’s lowest-lying country. Officials believe that at an average of just 3 feet above sea level, it lacked the conditions for a full-scale tsunami to build up. That meant casualties and damage, while considerable, were less than in neighboring countries. Seventy-three people are confirmed dead and 31 are missing.