Desperation felt in Indonesia as relief effort bogs down
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – As the world scrambled to the rescue, survivors fought over packs of noodles in quake-stricken Indonesian streets Wednesday while relief supplies piled up at the airport for lack of cars, gas or passable roads to move them. The official death toll across 11 countries soared past 77,000 and the Red Cross predicted it could exceed 100,000.
Bodies were piled into mass graves in the belief that burial would ward off disease. Paramedics in southern India began vaccinating thousands of survivors against cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery, and authorities sprayed bleaching powder on beaches where bodies have been recovered. In Sri Lanka, reports of waterborne disease such as diarrhea caused fears of an epidemic.
President Bush announced the United States, India, Australia and Japan have formed an international coalition to coordinate relief and reconstruction of the 3,000 miles of Indian Ocean rim walloped by Sunday’s earthquake and the tsunami it unleashed.
“We’re facing a disaster of unprecedented proportion in nature,” said Simon Missiri, a top Red Cross official. “We’re talking about a staggering death toll.”
On hundreds of Web sites, the messages were brief but poignant: “Missing: Christina Blomee in Khao Lak,” or simply, “Where are you?” All conveyed the aching desperation of people the world over whose friends and family went off in search of holiday-season sun and sand and haven’t been heard from for four days.
But even as hope for the missing dwindled, survivors continued to turn up Wednesday. In Sri Lanka, where more than 22,000 died, a lone fisherman named Sini Mohammed Sarfudeen was rescued by an air force helicopter crew after clinging to his wave-tossed boat for three days.
Indian air force planes evacuated thousands of survivors from the remote island of Car Nicobar. Some of them had walked for days from their destroyed villages to reach a devastated but functioning airfield, where they were shuttled out 80 to 90 at a time.
Journalists were not allowed to leave the base to verify reports that some 8,000 people were dead there, but at the base alone, 67 officers and their families were missing and feared dead.
India’s death toll rose to nearly 7,000, while Indonesia’s stood at 45,268, but authorities said this did not include a full count from Sumatra’s west coast, where more than 10,000 deaths were suspected in one town alone.
In Sumatra, the Florida-sized Indonesian island close to the epicenter of the quake, the view from the air was of whole villages ripped apart, covered in mud and seawater. In one of the few signs of life, a handful of desperate people scavenged a beach for food. On the streets of Banda Aceh, the main town of Sumatra’s Aceh province, the military managed to drop supplies from vehicles and fights broke out over packs of instant noodles.
Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, military commander of Aceh province, said after flying over the stricken region that 75 percent of the west coast of Sumatra was destroyed.
Footage shot by an Associated Press Television News cameraman on the military helicopter showed town after town covered in mud and sea water. Homes had their roofs ripped off or were flattened.