Tsunami toll rises to 68,000; aid teams arrive
International aid teams landed in Asia's tsunami-devastated villages on Wednesday in a desperate race to prevent the spread of diseases in one of the biggest catastrophe relief operations in history.
Many coastal villages and resorts, now nothing more than mud-covered rubble blanketed with the stench of rotting corpses, remained inaccessible to heavy earth moving equipment needed to clear debris and dispose of bodies.
"We are especially concerned about people in remote coastal areas, which are difficult to reach because many roads and bridges have been destroyed," said Jeff Dick, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) director in Sri Lanka.
"Communication lines remain extremely problematic, and many key logistic routes needed to transport food have been blocked," said Dick.
Areas effectively cut off included eastern Sri Lanka, India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands and Indonesia's northern Aceh province, near the epicenter of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that set off the tsunami.
Sri Lanka is the hardest hit country, with a death toll of nearly 22,000, and some 1.5 million homeless and the toll is bound to rise.
The WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency, was trucking food supplies to 12 districts in Sri Lanka and sending emergency teams to Sri Lanka's cut-off coasts.
"As search and rescue operations continue and medical assistance to the victims is provided, food aid for those who have lost their homes and belongings in the destruction -- together with health, shelter and sanitation concerns -- will become more acute," Dick said.
The United Nations said it was preparing to issue what could be its largest appeal for donations in its history to cope with its biggest and costliest relief effort.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is seeking to raise more than 50 million Swiss francs ($44 million) after issuing a flash appeal on Sunday for 7.5 million Swiss francs ($6.57 million).
More than 40,000 people were being temporarily housed in 66 Red Cross camps and shelters in Sri Lanka, with thousands more seeking shelter in temples, praying another tsunami won't hit.
Disease could kill as many people as those killed by the wall of water, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official said.
Red Cross teams specialising in water and sanitation were landing in Sri Lanka and Indonesia to ensure access to potable water to prevent diseases, particularly malaria.
The Red Cross said it expected demand for aid would rise once remote areas were reached, particularly the Andaman and Nicobar islands and Aceh.
"We fear the death toll and the numbers of homeless and injured will significantly rise in Indonesia as information comes in from outlying regions," it said in a statement.
In Khao Lak on Thailand's southern coast, Taiwanese and German relief teams worked alongside local volunteers, forced to retrieve hundreds of bodies by hand for fear that damaged resort buildings may collapse.
"The problem is the structures (on the beach) are not stable and we need to get backhoes in there but it is very difficult," said Thai rescue volunteer Prachon. "We have to carry the bodies out by hand. There are many people (bodies) trapped inside."
An international fleet of naval ships and military and chartered aircraft were headed on Wednesday for tsunami hit countries, delivering hundreds of tonnes of plastic sheeting for body disposal, tents, sanitation kits and food.
The Pentagon said it ordered 12 vessels, including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, helicopter carrier USS Bonhomme Richard and a submarine, to the region.
"This is the largest catastrophe we have seen in decades. We haven't even seen the tip of the iceberg yet," said IFRC secretary general Markku Niskala. "We face a huge challenge due to the vast area affected."