South Asia Tsunami Relief Operations Speed Up

The effort to get food and water to the millions left homeless and hungry from Asia's quake-tsunami disaster picked up speed as the death toll continued to make its way towards 150,000, news agencies reported Monday. As donations poured in from around the world, disaster relief officials feared that thousands of those who survived the massive earthquake and waves on Dec. 26--especially in Indonesia--could still die because rescuers will not find them in time.

"Nowhere do we have the kind of problems that we're seeing in [Indonesia's western Sumatra and Aceh Provinces]," said UN disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland, as reported by the Agence France-Presse.

Egeland said the Aceh city of Meulaboh may "have perhaps been the most devastated of any town anywhere." At least half of the town's 50,000 residents were dead, he added. "At this stage, it is beyond our comprehension."

On the west coast of Sumatra island, the death toll will continue to "grow exponentially," with perhaps tens of thousands more deaths, he added.

According to AFP, Indonesia--which was hit hardest by the quake-tsunami devastation--has put its latest death toll at 94,081, putting the international number at 145,161 people dead in 12 countries. But the Indonesian health ministry said there may be 100,000 deaths in Aceh and North Sumatra alone, and the UN and aid groups have warned that diseases such as cholera or diarrhoea could claim tens of thousands more lives.

More than 270,000 people are in refugee camps in Aceh, but aid workers believe many more people are isolated with no water, food or access to medical care. And in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, long lines formed for drinking water from a purification unit set up by the Australian army.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka--the next hardest hit after Indonesia--fears grew of an outbreak of disease and rape of survivors as the island's tsunami death toll hit 30,196.

United Nations Children's Fund chief Carol Bellamy said the death and devastation wrought by the tidal waves in Sri Lanka was "overwhelming" and the most haunting sight of her two-day tour of the ravaged area was of parents watching for the sea to bring back the bodies of their children. "The hardest work is yet ahead," said Bellamy at a media conference Monday.

"I am aware that there are parts of the country that have not yet been reached [by relief workers] and that the suffering among the survivors there is severe," she added.

Rev. Philip Jesudavin, a longtime partner of North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse in Sri Lanka, said, “We are overwhelmed with sadness and shock.”

He said that thousands of fatalities have yet to be counted. “Bodies are being recovered from trees and bushes for mass burial,” he added.

Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief organization, reported earlier that it had deployed emergency teams to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to help provide critically needed items, including emergency food, temporary shelter, water filtration units, and medicine. It will also be providing assistance through Christian partners in India and Thailand.

“Our hearts are broken by this tragedy,” said Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham. “We take this very seriously, and we want to do all we can to help and comfort them.”

World Vision, one of the largest Christian relief and development organizations in the world, likened the destruction from the tsunami tragedy to the Second World War and called for a modern day version of the US Marshall Plan for Europe, under which the United States contributed the equivalent of 100 billion dollars toward Europe's reconstruction.

So far, officials say that United Nations has received a record 1.5 billion dollars in one week in donations. According to AFP, the disaster has also triggered a worldwide response that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, from jail inmates to children selling their Christmas presents.

Meanwhile, according to the latest reports, the U.S. military is delivering tens of thousands of pounds of relief supplies to southeast Asia, drawing on a worldwide network of ships, planes and other resources in its largest humanitarian mission in decades.

At least two dozen Navy ships with thousands of sailors and Marines are at the disaster scene or en route, the Associated Press reported Monday, including 400 Marines with six helicopters and medical equipment headed to Indonesia from the Japanese island of Okinawa, where they are normally based.

A three-ship group carrying 2,200 Marines and 24 helicopters is headed to the Bay of Bengal and will offer a variety of potential aid, including water purification equipment and medical supplies once they reach their destination. It's not yet clear how many of those Marines will go ashore, AP reported.

And while immediate aid is a priority, the military is also planning for the longer term. On Monday, the Pentagon's decided to send a 1,000-bed hospital ship with 10 operating rooms to south Asia. It will take an estimated 33 days to reach its destination.