Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami Toll Jumps to Over 125,000, Fear Lingers

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) - Asia's tsunami death toll soared above 125,000 on Friday as millions struggled to find food and clean water and persistent rumors of new giant waves sent many fleeing inland in panic.

Aid agencies warned a second wave of death could wash across Indian Ocean areas devastated by Sunday's tsunami if shattered infrastructure hampers what may prove to be history's biggest relief operation.

Workers in south India sprayed streets to ward off cholera.

"The worst is yet to come, I am afraid, because of the breakdown of sanitation facilities," said Dr. Robert Edelman, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland.

Hungry crowds in Indonesia besieged aid workers delivering food and some drivers dared not stop. Aircraft dropped supplies to nearly obliterated towns in Sumatra, an island the size of Florida.

The tragedy that has touched all corners of the globe is ushering in a somber New Year's Eve. Some 5000 foreign tourists, mostly Europeans at popular Indian Ocean resorts, are missing and hopes are dimming they will be found alive.

A Red Cross Web site in Geneva to aid anxious relatives locate survivors partially crashed after being overwhelmed by 650,000 hits in the first 24 hours.

Dozens of aftershocks have unnerved the traumatized survivors after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in 40 years, sent an unprecedented tsunami rolling from Indonesia to Africa.

After one such aftershock on Thursday, the Indian government issued a tsunami alert, later withdrawn, that caused residents to flee in panic and halted aid distribution in towns in Tamil Nadu.

"Waves are coming, waves are coming," some shouted.

This time, however, the waves did not come.

"I don't know how often this (tsunami) will happen but it has suddenly made our lives uncertain," said Apparachi Ashokan, a fisherman at Devanampatti village near Cuddalore town, 100 miles south of Madras.

Aftershocks on Thursday night in worst-hit Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra sent residents fleeing their homes for the second night in a row.


The death toll had shot up more than 50 percent in a day with still no clear picture of conditions in some remote villages.

Indonesia's Health Ministry said just under 80,000 people had died in the northern Aceh province that was close to the undersea quake, some 28,000 more than previously announced.

People across the world opened their hearts and wallets to give millions of dollars to victims, jamming phone lines and web sites and outpacing their own governments in their generosity.

David Nabarro, head of a World Health Organization crisis team, said as many as 5 million people were now unable to obtain the minimum they needed to live.

But getting aid to the survivors is the big problem, with many roads washed out, petrol stations not operating and poor coordination among the military, aid groups and governments.

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

The World Bank offered $250 million in relief, bringing total international aid to nearly $500 million.

Many villages and resorts from Thailand to Indonesia are now mud-covered rubble, blanketed with the stench of corpses.


The cataclysm is stretching the world's ability to respond, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Thursday.

While the initial outpouring of donations has been generous, "this is an unprecedented global catastrophe and it requires an unprecedented global response," he told a news conference.

A tragedy of biblical proportions is bringing together the mostly poor countries along the Indian Ocean rim and their rich counterparts in the West.

The Paris Club group of creditors is to examine a debt moratorium for disaster-struck countries, a source close to the Club said.

President Bush, criticized for his slow reaction to disaster, said he would send a delegation led by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region on Sunday to assess the need for U.S. assistance.

Analysts estimated damages from the disaster at about $14 billion, but that does not include potential losses of business and productivity. Some are cutting economic growth estimates for the hardest-hit countries.

For Australian mother-of-two Jillian Searle, who let go of her older son Lachie, 5, to cradle her 2 year-old as the wall of water struck, there was a happy ending.

Lachie was found alive about two hours later clinging to a door and, though traumatized by his ordeal, looked uninjured as his mother spoke to reporters on arrival back in Australia.

"I knew I had to let go of one of them and I just thought I'd better let go of the one that's the oldest," said Searle.

"And I was screaming, trying to find him, and we thought he was dead."


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