Aid distribution stalled
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By Peter S. Goodman
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia U.N. relief officials warned yesterday that tens of thousands of people affected by the earthquake and tsunami in South Asia have not received help and that some are dying because ruined roads and bad communications are preventing the distribution of supplies.
International relief groups have delivered only one-eighth of the 400,000 tons of food flown into affected parts of Indonesia, said Michael Elmquist, chief of the U.N. office coordinating the rescue effort in the country. He said the delivery of lifesaving food and medicine has been slowed by impassable highways, severed telecommunications and airports unable to accommodate enough relief flights.
"I have witnessed a build-up of aid on a scale that has never happened before," Elmquist said. "This effort has been hampered very seriously."
Some aid was blocked from reaching Banda Aceh early today after a Boeing 737 ferrying supplies hit a herd of cows as it landed at the province's airport, causing no injuries among crewmen or people on the ground but forcing the airport to close until the aircraft could be removed, officials said.
At the United Nations, Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said it was impossible to estimate how many people have not received emergency aid since the Dec. 26 earthquake that generated the tsunami off the northern coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island.
"My heart goes out to those along the Sumatra coast, because we're not even there, and those were the hardest hit," Egeland said. "Are they tens of thousands, are they hundreds of thousands that we're not reaching? I don't even know."
Egeland estimated that fatalities from the catastrophe now exceed 150,000. The official death count is about 139,000, including more than 94,000 in Indonesia and 30,000 in Sri Lanka, the island nation off the southern tip of India. The tsunami killed people in coastal areas in nine other countries around the Indian Ocean. U.N. officials said that throughout the region about 500,000 people may have been seriously injured and millions left homeless.
"The death toll will grow exponentially on the western coast of Sumatra," Egeland said at a news conference.
One U.N. agency, the World Food Program, reported yesterday that 30,000 people in Myanmar needed emergency help, despite milder assessments from the country's secretive military government.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy began deploying helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier stationed off Sumatra.
"In my 17 years of service, I have never seen such devastation and I hope that I'll never see such again in my life," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Jesse Cash.
In Somalia, a spokesman for President Abdullahi Yusuf said promised relief from 24 countries including the United States, Italy, Germany and Saudi Arabia had not arrived. Officials said at least 50,000 people urgently needed food, water, shelter and medical help after massive waves destroyed houses and ruined livelihoods. The East African country is more than 3,000 miles from the epicenter of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake.
In Banda Aceh, relief flights from Sumatra's largest city, Medan, were delayed up to five hours because there were not enough landing areas for aircraft and forklifts to unload supplies.
Relief was flowing to dozens of refugee camps in and around Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. An Australian government medical team has taken over and restored an abandoned hospital, and Australian soldiers yesterday began dispensing cans of treated water on city streets. International aid workers could be seen throughout the city dispensing generators, food and water treatment kits to people who have lost nearly everything they had.
But beyond the city, the flow of help has been scarce and uneven. The road connecting Banda Aceh to points south was blocked about seven miles outside the city: The bridge crossing a muddy river there lies twisted in the water. A former military base next to it was annihilated, and rubble and rotting corpses were strewn across a flooded field.
Abdullah Samsuardi, a survivor from Aceh Jaya, about 60 miles down the west coast of Aceh, said only 80 of the town's 3,000 inhabitants remained there. The rest either were dead or in refugee camps.
Samsuardi had been in Aceh Jaya until Sunday evening, when he saw a Singaporean army helicopter flying overhead. He waved his arms frantically, and the crew landed to pick him up along with four other survivors.
Those left behind are staying mainly to take care of injured relatives, Samsuardi said. They are subsisting on coconuts and food from others passing by on the way to refugee camps, he said. They are drinking well water, and many people are suffering from diarrhea.
"Until the first boat came yesterday, no one came with anything," he said.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and the Associated Press contributed to this report.