Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami Death Toll Jumps Over 120,000

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) - The mercilessness of Asia's tsunami grew clearer on Thursday as worst-hit Indonesia sharply raised its death toll, taking the number of fatalities around the whole Indian Ocean region above 120,000.

Health Ministry sources told Reuters just under 80,000 had died in Indonesia's northern Aceh province that was close to the undersea quake, some 28,000 more than previously announced. Two sources said the toll would be officially announced soon.

Aceh, already suffering a prolonged conflict, has emerged as the "ground zero" of Sunday's great earthquake just off its coast. It triggered monstrous waves all the way to Africa that killed thousands more in India, Thailand and elsewhere.

Sri Lanka, severely afflicted, raised its toll on Thursday by just under 3,000 people to 27,268.

Millions of people on Indian Ocean shores scrambled for food and clean water as disease, thirst, hunger and panic threatened survivors of the world's most lethal natural disaster since a cyclone in Bangladesh killed 138,000 people in 1991.

Aftershocks, rumors and an Indian tsunami warning that proved wrong added to the chaos in a still terrified region.

Despite Thursday's spiraling toll, the true scale of the disaster may not be known for weeks, if ever, as rescuers battled to reach remote areas and washed-away towns, and grieving survivors searched for bodies of locals and tourists alike.

The scale that was known grew ever more awesome.

"This isn't just a situation of giving out food and water. Entire towns and villages need to be rebuilt from the ground up," said Rod Volway of CARE Canada, whose emergency team was one of the first into Aceh.

As the world pledged $220 million in cash and sent a flotilla of ships and aircraft laden with supplies, history's biggest relief operation battled with the enormity of the task.

"As many as 5 million people are not able to access what they need for living," said David Nabarro, head of a World Health Organization (WHO) crisis team.

Many villages and resorts are now mud-covered rubble, blanketed with the stench of corpses after the 9.0 magnitude quake, the most powerful in 40 years.

Thousands of bodies rotting in the tropical heat were tumbled into mass graves, but health officials said polluted water posed a much greater threat than corpses.

Holiday-makers were among those caught by surprise. Nearly 5,000 foreigners -- half from Sweden and Germany -- are missing, many in Thailand, where 710 foreigners have been confirmed dead.

AID CHAOS

Authorities warned of many deaths from dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever caused by contaminated food and water, and malaria and dengue fever carried by mosquitoes.

Four days after the tsunami, most people had given up hope of finding loved ones alive, realizing the sea's power forbade the miracle rescues often seen after land-based quakes.

Indonesian aircraft dropped food to isolated areas in Aceh on northern Sumatra, an island the size of Florida -- areas that may not be reached by land for days.

Survivors complained aid was only trickling in, despite a mountain of supplies stacking up at the local airport. Aid officials blamed poor coordination with the military.

"There's no information. Just what you hear on the street. Coordination is very bad," said Zulkarnaen, 36, from the province's main city Banda Aceh.

Hungry crowds jostling for aid biscuits besieged people delivering them in the town, so some drivers dared not stop.

"Some cars come by and throw food like that. The fastest get the food, the strong one wins. The elderly and the injured don't get anything. We feel like dogs," said Usman, 43.

In flattened Meulaboh town, the force of the waves pushed water up to the foot of tree-clad mountains two kilometers (a mile) inland. Officials fear a third of its 120,000 residents have perished.

In Sri Lanka's worst-hit area Ampara, residents ran things themselves, going around with loudhailers, asking people to donate pots and pans, buckets of fresh water and sarongs.

"Frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks ahead," said U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland.

Well over a million people have been left homeless. Hospitals are overwhelmed with the injured -- an estimated 100,000 or more.

The United Nations prepared what could be its largest appeal for donations to cope with its biggest relief effort.

The United States said a pledge of $35 million was just a start, and sent an aircraft carrier group toward Sumatra and other ships including a helicopter carrier to the Bay of Bengal.

Financial costs, estimated at up to $14 billion, are tiny relative to the human suffering. By comparison, Hurricane Andrew killed 50 people in 1992 but, with much of the damage in the United States, cost around $30 billion.

TSUNAMI ALERT

The earthquake and the unprecedented tsunami it triggered kept nerves jangling in the region.

India issued tsunami alerts -- that were absent on Sunday -- prompting a panicked exodus from coastal areas, and thousands of Sri Lankans also fled far inland after hearing similar reports.

However, there were no signs of giant waves.

In the Thai resort turned graveyard of Khao Lak, the grim task of retrieving bodies was interrupted briefly when a tremor cleared the beach of people in a flash.

Dutch, German and Swiss forensic teams flew to Thailand to help identify now hard to recognize bodies by collecting dental evidence, DNA samples, fingerprints, photographs and X-rays.

Preserving bodies was an urgent need and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promised to provide refrigerated containers.

Overnight aftershocks in Banda Aceh also sent people fleeing their homes.

"I was sleeping, but fled outside in panic. If I am going to die, I will die here. Just let it be," said Kaspian, 26.

In north Sri Lanka, survivors recovering corpses faced a new danger -- floating land mines from a long-running conflict.

Animals seem to have escaped the disaster, adding weight to notions they possess a "sixth sense" for disasters, experts said.

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