Monday, December 27, 2004

Asia quake death toll tops 23,000

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- Weeping residents combed through debris and stunned tourists wandered through litter-strewn streets on Monday, a day after tsunamis swept across the Indian Ocean from Thailand to Somalia, killing at least 23,000 people.
The giant waves -- caused by the most powerful earthquake on Earth in 40 years -- also left thousands injured and missing as well as hundreds of thousands homeless in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The magnitude 9.0 quake struck about 7 a.m. Sunday (7 p.m. ET Saturday) and was centered about 100 miles (160 km) off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island at a depth of about 6.2 miles (10 km).
It was the strongest earthquake on Earth since 1964 and tied a 1952 quake in Kamchatka, Russia as the fourth strongest since such measurements began in 1899.
But Asian officials conceded Monday that they failed to issue public warnings that could have saved many lives. (Full story)
In Sri Lanka, where tidal waves swept ashore two-and-a-half hours after the initial earthquake struck Indonesia's Sumatra islands, The Associated Press said residents expressed disbelief that there was no warning.
Residents and tourists woke Monday to shocking scenes: streets filled with rubble, cars shoved into store windows, piers and beach huts completely gone.
More than 12,000 people have been reported dead in Sri Lanka. Most of them were in the eastern district of Batticaloa, authorities said. Thousands were missing, an estimated 1 million were displaced and an estimated 250,000 were homeless.
The Sri Lankan government declared a state of emergency, and, along with the government of the Maldives, requested international assistance, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported.
Some 20,000 Sri Lankan soldiers and naval personnel have launched relief and rescue efforts. India sent six warships carrying supplies, along with helicopters. Priorities included identifying the hardest-hit areas, airdropping supplies and shepherding stranded people to safer areas.
Italy, France and Pakistan also sent help to Sri Lanka.
The country has been in the throes of a civil war, and land mines uprooted by the tidal waves were hampering relief efforts. But Jeffrey Lunstead, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, said he was told the Tamil Tiger rebels in the northeast and government forces were cooperating in the aftermath of the disaster.
"That's a good sign," he told CNN.
India and Pakistan also sent equipment to the Maldives, according to the country's high commissioner, Hassan Sobir. He told CNN that communication had been re-established with the northernmost of the widely scattered islands south of India -- most rising barely 5 feet above sea level -- but the southern islands remained "out of reach."
"The entire Maldives, I think, for a moment disappeared from the planet Earth," he said. "Some islands may have completely disappeared, we don't know yet. But all the islands have been affected."
India also was reeling from the aftermath of the quake and tsunamis. Press Trust of India, the government news agency, said at least 6,200 Indians were killed and more bodies were being recovered.
Along India's southeastern coast, several villages were swept away, and thousands of fishermen who were at sea when the waves thundered ashore have not returned.
Grieving relatives Monday buried or cremated their dead. Along the coast, brick foundations were all that remained of village homes.
In Tamil Nadu state, 2,500 people have been confirmed dead, and officials said 3,000 died on the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, where dozens of aftershocks were centered.
Efforts to provide survivors with food and shelter were hampered by the overwhelming magnitude of the damage.
Thai authorities said at least 866 people were dead and hundreds missing along the country's west coast -- home to 40 percent of Thailand's $10 billion tourist industry.
Tourists described the shock of being on a paradise island one moment and swimming in a living hell the next.
John Irvine of Britain's ITN television was enjoying the beach Sunday morning and ran into his bungalow to get a camera. When he returned, he saw "this wall of water heading our way, and my wife screamed to me."
"She grabbed our daughter, and I looked frantically for my 5-year-old son," Irvine told CNN. "He was looking out to sea. He was mesmerized, hypnotized by the wall of water."
Irvine said he grabbed the boy and "ran as hard as I could."
"And then I could hear the rush behind me," he said. "I looked and I could see the wall of water coming towards us. ... The wave caught up with us ... and it washed us, I guess, another 50 yards into a mangrove swamp. We were very lucky not to be hit by all the debris that there was. I mean, it was carrying small boats with it, carrying logs, masonry. It was a terrifying experience."
The Thai government set up a tourist relief center and domestic relief centers.
Indonesia may have been the worst hit of all. Information from Aceh province -- closest to the epicenter, which was about 100 miles off the coast -- has been slow in coming because communications were cut off and because of a rebel insurgency based in the area.
On Monday evening, Vice President Muhammad Yusuf Kalla returned from a trip to the province's capital, Banda Aceh, and said the devastation there was much worse than anticipated and that the death toll could reach 5,000 to 10,000 in the capital alone.
At least 4,350 people are currently reported dead in Indonesia, officials said.
The government was arranging food, water and medicine for the shattered region and was staging relief efforts from Medan on the west coast. But the lack of communications in Banda Aceh was problematic.
Reports returned with the vice president that the city's infrastructure was wiped out and that military and police equipment was destroyed. The chief of police in Banda Aceh said that 400 of his officers were killed a police dormitory.
In the Maldives, 46 people are dead and more than 70 missing, according to Hassan Sobir, the Maldives High Commissioner.
Among the dead across the region are at least 16 non-nationals, including six Britons, six Americans and four Italians, officials from those countries said. Of the Americans, five were killed in Sri Lanka and one in Thailand, U.S. officials said.
As far away as Somalia on Africa's east coast, there were reports of swimmers and fishermen swept out to sea.
No warning
The tsunamis struck with no warning to those in coastal areas -- particularly Indonesia, so close to the source -- as no warning system exists for the Indian Ocean, said Eddie Bernard, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine and Environmental Labs in Seattle.
Such tsunamis are much more common around the Pacific Rim than in the Indian Ocean.
"The damage is just phenomenal," said Jan Egelund, U.N. emergency relief coordinator. "I think we are seeing now one of the worst natural disasters ever."
There was disagreement over whether the threat was over.
Waverly Person of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) said the tsunamis are "long over" and residents and visitors should not worry about further tsunamis.
Bernard, however, said the aftershocks are strong enough to produce more tsunamis.
The quake represented the energy released from a very large rupture in the earth's crust more than 600 miles (1,000 km) long, the NEIC said.
It was the strongest earthquake to hit anywhere on Earth since March 1964, when a 9.2 quake struck near Alaska's Prince William Sound. The strongest recorded earthquake registered 9.5 on May 22, 1960, in Chile.
Sunday's quake hit a year after the 6.6-magnitude quake in Bam, Iran, which killed more than 30,000 people, injured another 30,000 and destroyed 85 percent of the buildings in the southeastern Iran city.

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