Death toll exceeds 80,000 in Asia |

Death toll exceeds 80,000 in Asia

Amy Waldman and Warren Hoge
The New York Times
Indonesians line up to buy gasoline Wednesday on Sumatra Island. The government said the official death toll from an earthquake and tsunamis on the island had reached more than 32,000. AP photo/Dita Alangkara.

MADRAS, India ” World leaders, including President Bush, promised long-range help to Asian countries on Wednesday as impatience with the pace of relief efforts soared along with the estimated toll from the week’s disaster, which officials said now surpassed 80,000 dead.

As U.S. planes and ships moved into place to help from Thailand, Bush made this first public comments since tsunamis inundated about a dozen countries on Sunday, reflecting pressure on the vacationing president to appear more engaged in what aid groups are calling one of the worst natural disasters in history.

“These past few days have brought loss and grief to the world that is beyond our comprehension,” Bush said at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, adding that Washington was prepared to contribute much more than the initial $35 million it had initially pledged.

“We are committed to helping the affected countries in the difficult weeks and months that lie ahead,” Bush said, adding that the United States would work closely with Japan, India and Australia to coordinate relief efforts.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General Kofi Annan cut short his vacation and was returning to New York on Wednesday night to oversee the U.N. relief effort, one of the largest in the organization’s history, his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said.

Eckhard said that Annan had been busy speaking by telephone with leaders of the countries affected “not only to express condolences but to see what they needed most urgently.” Annan had also been in touch with the major donor countries, he said.

Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, said Wednesday that the death toll from the tsunamis had risen above 80,000 and that international assistance was coming forward in such quantity that the challenge was shifting from attracting aid to coordinating it.

“Coordination is now vital,” he said. “This is one of the biggest relief operations we have ever had, and we see clearly that in addition to our traditional donors, we now have a very generous outpouring from new donors, Asian societies, Gulf Arab countries.”

Egeland said that pledges and donations of immediate assistance had now passed $220 million, with fresh amounts arriving almost hourly. In addition, he said, there had been “in kind” aid and military assistance that was worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Pentagon has set up a joint task force out of Okinawa, deploying forces to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Among the equipment dispatched are six C-130 transport planes, nine P-3 air surveillance and rescue planes, an aircraft carrier and several ships with the ability to produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water each day.

In Washington Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that the aid money needed would end up “in the billions” of dollars, and pledged that the United States would increase its contributions and work with other donors to reach that goal.

To coordinate the international effort, Egeland at the United Nations said that he was dispatching his deputy, Margareta Wallstrom, on Wednesday night to Geneva. From there, she is to accompany U.N. officials to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other affected countries.

“In any disaster of this nature,” Wallstrom said, “you have to start planning the recovery now, parallel with the very large emergency response.”

She said it was essential to repair airports, schools, clinics and roads and that the United Nations had lots of logistics expertise at its disposal. “Countries like India and Thailand will fairly quickly come to grips with these problems,” she said. “It will take longer in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.”

While the event affected countries from Malaysia to Somalia, the greatest devastation appears to have been visited on the Indonesian province of Aceh, about 90 miles from the epicenter of the quake, and the site of all but 239 of the deaths, now exceeding 45,000, that have been reported in the country so far.

Tens of thousands more people are feared dead in Meulaboh, on Aceh’s west coast, where the first rescue crews arrived only Wednesday. “Eighty percent of the buildings are wrecked,” Widodo Adi Sutjipto, the chief security minister, told Reuters.

The remoteness of many of the areas affected, the large numbers of missing and the speed with which graves are being dug and filled have contributed to the uncertainty around the death toll.

In India, the defense minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said that the number of confirmed dead stood at nearly 7,000, with the unofficial estimate at 10,000.

Of the confirmed dead, 4,332 came from one district alone, Nagappattinam, in Tamil Nadu. Some 150,000 people there are homeless.

Estimates of the dead in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the archipelago in the Bay of Bengal whose southern end lies about 100 miles from the quake epicenter, were so disparate as to be meaningless. Even as some officials continued to predict that the death toll there could rise to 8,000 or 9,000, the official body count stood at only about 350 for a set of islands where 350,000 people once lived.

In Sri Lanka, government officials said that 7,911 people were dead or missing just in Amparai, a city on the east coast. The president’s office said more than 16,000 people were killed countrywide, though police reported fewer than 10,000 bodies had been recovered.

Sri Lanka has a population of only 20 million, which means the deaths and damage are having a proportionate effect, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga appealed for unity in a country that has just emerged from two decades of civil war.

“I truly believe this is the time for us to shed all our differences and unite to meet the challenge of rebuilding our country,” she said.

The Indian government, meanwhile, faced increasing pressure to explain why it failed to warn coastal communities of the approaching sea surge. Government officials said they would install 10 to 12 “deep ocean assessment and reporting systems” and other technological defenses to warn of future tsunamis.

In a press conference, the minister of science and technology and ocean development, Kapil Sibal, said the government could not be blamed, however. “No government thought of it,” he said. “The last recorded tsunami has been in 1883. It was not in the horizon of our thoughts.”

He said Indian authorities knew of the earthquake near Sumatra at 6:29 a.m., but had no way of knowing that it would cause tsunamis that would hit the Indian coast some 2.5 hours later.

He said that the Indian meteorological department had contacted Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, at 8:25 a.m. Sunday. Officials there reported damage from the quake but not the tsunami. Even after the tsunami hit the islands, the mainland was not notified.

For the moment, the emphasis remains on helping the injured, bereaved and ill.

An American P-3 surveillance aircraft went into operation in Thailand, deploying on reconnaissance missions to get a more accurate picture of devastation, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.

American C-130 aircraft from Japan also started arriving with relief supplies at the Thai military base of U Tapao, which will serve as the coordination center for the entire military relief effort in Asia.

A priority request from Thai authorities was for body bags, preservatives and forensics to support the process of collecting and identifying the dead.

Egeland at the United Nations said that in some of the hardest hit areas, so much unsolicited assistance was arriving that airports could not handle the traffic, and that planes had to go to distant airstrips where there was no transportation to get the materials to places they were needed.

“There are very few airstrips in these areas, and the strips and air space are precious to us,” he said. Overall, though, he said this relief effort had been more disciplined than past ones.

The United Nations assumed that there were at least four injured people for every dead person, he said, and that medical facilities were overwhelmed caring for them. “Many local medical facilities in many instances were destroyed in the first place and those not destroyed are totally swamped,” he said.

Other countries like India and Singapore had greatly increased their level of aid, he said, noting that the Indians had sent three navy ships and a number of helicopters to the area. He said he had also taken a number of calls from Latin American ambassadors saying their countries wanted to help.

Told of Bush’s comment on Wednesday that he was “very misguided and ill-informed” on Monday when he said that the rich nations had become “stingy” in helping the world’s poor, Egeland said he had never meant to imply that the United States was not being generous in the current crisis. He said his comment had been a general one about the trends in international giving over the past year.

“The United States has been traditionally among the most generous in disaster relief and humanitarian relief, by far our biggest donor,” he said. His general comment, he said, had been based not on the total amount of money, but on the percentage of gross national product devoted to assistance.

U.S. officials defended their aid totals as well as the speed of their response. Powell and other officials said that teams at the Pentagon and State Department began working on a plan for assistance immediate after the disaster struck.

“You don’t just send people out in two hours,” Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said. “You begin mobilizing. You start the planning, and you start spending. We did that on Sunday.”