BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – The first U.S. Navy helicopters fluttered in from an offshore carrier group Saturday and ferried aid to flattened towns along the western coast of Sumatra island, largely cut off from help since a massive wave last Sunday inflicted one of history’s great disasters on Indonesia.
A day after the United States increased its contribution to the tsunami reconstruction effort to $350 million, Japan raised its pledge from $30 million to $500 million. With Japan’s donation, the largest from any government, about $2 billion has been promised for emergency aid for an estimated 5 million people in South Asia and parts of Africa.
“It’s the biggest outpouring of relief in such a short period of time,” said Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary general in charge of emergency relief. “International compassion has never been like this.”
Aftershocks shook the region Saturday, including a 6.5-magnitude tremor 215 miles west of this hard-hit provincial capital, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Smaller quakes were felt in northern Sumatra Island and the remote Indian islands of Nicobar and Andaman just to the north.
Tropical rains came down in intervals throughout the day, adding to the misery of tens of thousands of refugees living in tents or without shelter. Heavy rains also fell in Sri Lanka, creating flash floods that sent villagers running for high ground, according to news agency dispatches from Colombo.
Navy relief deliveries, carried out by a dozen specially fitted SH-60 Bravo helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln, marked the start of a large-scale international relief operation that devastated residents of Aceh have been awaiting for nearly a week. Relief officials said the deliveries of food, water and medicine were particularly welcome along the shore south of Banda Aceh, where the wall of water destroyed a series of bridges and left the main road impossible to navigate.
“We are basically here to do whatever is needed,” said Capt. Larry Burt of Lamore, Calif., who commanded the Navy’s first group to arrive at Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport in Banda Aceh.
“I hope to get more stuff in here and start delivering it,” said Cdr. Frank Michael of Dallas, Pa., who piloted one of the craft.
The dull-gray Navy helicopters, usually deployed to hunt submarines, flew in from the Lincoln carrier group steaming only a few miles east of Banda Aceh in the now-tranquil Indian Ocean. With help from Australian and Indonesian military personnel, the U.S. forces loaded up supplies for immediate delivery southward.
According to civilian relief officials who flew over the disaster zone, a lot is needed in coastal areas. Indonesian navy ships have delivered supplies to Meulaboh, a destroyed port 110 miles south of here, they said, but thousands of homeless and hungry victims have lined the main road north and south of the town, looking in vain for shelter and food since the tsunami washed away their villages.
As Burt and Michael spoke on the tarmac, C-130 Hercules transport planes from the Australian, U.S. and Indonesian militaries whined onto the runways with deliveries of more relief supplies. Singaporean Super Puma military helicopters joined Indonesian air force craft churning up the air, while trucks drove in and out picking up cargo. After days during which foreign governments seemed slow to respond to Indonesia’s massive tragedy, there was a sense of sudden acceleration in the international relief operation.
Alwi Shihab, coordinating minister for social welfare, defended his efforts against complaints from many victims and Indonesian rescue volunteers that Indonesian and international officials were slow in getting started. “It’s not that we are doing nothing,” he said at a news conference here.
For the first time since the tsunami struck, heavy equipment such as front-end loaders were seen pushing away debris and mud from Aceh’s destroyed city center. But soldiers continued to pick up bodies from the streets and most of the city remained without utilities and a working administration.
Because many local officials were killed, Shihab said, the Interior Ministry will fly in more than 300 officials from Jakarta, the capital, to man provincial and municipal administrations across Aceh province. Seeking to give an idea of the scope of the difficulty he faces, Shihab said 150,000 people made homeless by the disaster have crowded into 20 different refugee camps in Banda Aceh, without counting the thousands who have found refuge with relatives or are still wandering flattened villages along the western coast.
U.N. officials said the up-tempo in relief flights created a traffic jam in the skies over Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two hardest-hit countries in a disaster whose confirmed death toll neared 124,000. Egeland estimated that the toll actually is about 150,000, when the missing are counted – and may never be known with precision.
Indonesia, with at least 80,000 dead and possibly as many as 100,000, by far had the largest number of victims among the half-dozen countries bordering on the Indian Ocean that were hit by the tsunami. Sri Lanka, with 28,700, came next. India had 9,000 dead and Thailand had 4,800 confirmed dead. Across the region, thousands of people remained missing and were presumed dead.
In Thailand, the government brought in elephants to help clear debris along southern beaches. “Elephants could work better in pulling out the remains of collapsed buildings and houses, especially in areas flooded with mud or hilly areas,” said Siriphong Leeprasit, a local official in Phang Nga province, quoted by the Associated Press.
Paul Shumack, a Brisbane physician who heads an Australian medical rescue team, said the international aid effort was particularly slow to get up to speed in Aceh because news of the extent of the death and destruction here trickled out slowly, leading to tardy decisions by world leaders. In addition, he pointed out, the earthquake and tsunami caused such vast destruction that much of Sumatra Island’s infrastructure and officialdom was shattered, slowing Indonesia’s official response.
“It’s a disaster of huge magnitude, a magnitude that is almost beyond conceiving,” he said. “It took a hell of a long time to realize the magnitude of what happened, and then, given the logistics, to react.”
Relief officials also complained that Indonesian military and civilian officials have slowed the process with bureaucratic requirements and lack of coordination. Until the U.S. military operation began Saturday, the aid organizations that seemed most effective were self-contained operations with their own vehicles and supplies, freeing them from the necessity to rely on help from Indonesian authorities.
Australian medical teams, for instance, have been at work for several days in Banda Aceh and surrounding towns. Shumack said his team brought enough food to feed its members for 20 days and enough equipment and medicine to treat 500 people a day for 10 days.
Japan, which has already dispatched two naval destroyers and a supply ship to waters off hard-hit Thailand, is also in the midst of deploying additional troops to aid in rescue operations, officials said in Tokyo.
Despite the quickening flow of international aid, supplies were still slow in reaching the millions of people who need them, officials acknowledged. Piles of boxes stacked up at the airport in Aceh, for example, and Rizal Nordin, governor of Northern Sumatra Province south of here, said hundreds of tons were piling up at a staging area in Medan.
Click here to comment on this story »