Sri Lanka floods force mass evacuations
After the devastation wreaked by the seas, a deluge from the skies deepened the misery for tsunami-stricken areas Saturday, triggering flash floods in Sri Lanka that sent evacuees fleeing and increasing the threat of deadly disease. U.S. forces began one of their biggest relief missions ever with the death toll likely to hit 150,000.
A magnitude 6.5 aftershock jolted Sumatra as the world's aid efforts shifted into high gear in ways big and small: elephant convoys working in Thailand, global assistance reaching $2 billion with a fresh pledge from Tokyo, and aid-bearing American helicopters touching down in Indonesia to the joy of tsunami survivors.
The confirmed death toll from the quake and tsunamis that hit a week ago Sunday passed 123,000, and the United Nations has said the estimated number was approaching 150,000. Thailand said it expects its death toll to reach 8,000.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan decided to visit Indonesia, the hardest hit nation, where the official death toll stood at more than 80,000, but officials said it could reach 100,000. Annan will attend a conference Thursday in Jakarta on organizing relief.
"We mourn, we cry and our hearts weep to witness thousands of victims sprawled everywhere," said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, touring the damage on Sumatra island, which bore the brunt of both the quake and the waves.
Hungry Indonesians welcomed a dozen American Seahawk helicopters sent from the USS Abraham Lincoln as they landed in Banda Aceh and other parts of Sumatra island's devastated northwest coast, bringing relief supplies including temporary shelters. Also, a flotilla of cargo planes carrying Marines and water purifying equipment headed to Sri Lanka.
A day after President Bush upped the U.S. pledge to $350 million, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced Saturday that his country would contribute up to $500 million to relief efforts.
"The carnage is of a scale that defies comprehension," President Bush said in his weekly radio address, announcing a proclamation calling for U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff this week in honor of the dead. Secretary of State Colin Powell was also heading for the region.
But the dollar figures were an abstraction for survivors whose hearts were broken once again by water.
At one refugee camp on the grounds of the airport of Banda Aceh, hundreds of people spent a wet night shivering under plastic sheets. Mothers nursed babies while others tried to light a fire with damp matches.
"With no help we will die," said Indra Syaputra. "We came here because we heard that we could get food, but it was nonsense. All I got was some packets of noodles."
The rains pummeling the corpse-littered city were creating the conditions for cholera and other waterborne diseases to spread. Boxes of aid at Banda Aceh's airport soaked up water, making it difficult for workers loading cartons of water, crackers and noodles onto delivery vehicles.
More amazing stories of survival emerged.
The Indonesian Red Cross in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, reportedly dug out a survivor from the ruins of a house where he had been buried since the tsunami struck. The rescuers heard Ichsan Azmil's cries for help. After he was pulled out Friday, he asked for water and was taken to a hospital for treatment of cuts and bruises.
On India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, a woman who fled the killer waves gave birth Monday in the forest that became her sanctuary. She named her son "Tsunami."
Even art became part of the folklore of resilience.
In the historic port town of Galle, Sri Lanka, several Buddha statues of cement and plaster were found unscathed amid collapsed brick walls in the center of the devastated city.
To many residents, it was a divine sign.
"The people are not living according to religious virtues," said Sumana, a Buddhist monk in an orange robe who sheltered himself from the sun under a black umbrella.
In eastern Sri Lanka, flash floods forced the evacuation of about 2,000 people already displaced by a tsunami that killed nearly 29,000 people on the tropical island.
Several roads leading to Ampara ¡ª one of the hardest hit towns ¡ª were flooded, preventing relief trucks from arriving, said Neville Wijesinghe, a senior police officer. Bureaucratic delays, fuel shortages, impassable roads and long distances also blocked supplies.
In addition to the deaths, 5 million people were homeless. The hunt for loved ones dragged on with tens of thousands still missing. Among the missing were some 3,500 Swedes and 1,000 Germans, and hundreds of others from Scandinavia, Italy and Belgium.
Aftershocks rattled the region, sending panicked Sumatrans into the streets.
Geologists said a 6.5 quake rattled Sumatra at 1:25 p.m. (1:25 a.m. EST), centered 155 miles southwest of Banda Aceh. Smaller quakes hit West Java and southern Sumatra earlier.
Seismologists said strong tremors of up to magnitude 6.1 also struck the Andaman and Nicobar islands, where the exact number of tsunami casualties was not known but feared to be in the thousands.
Hunger and disease were the biggest threats in the archipelago, which the Indian government has largely been keeping off-limits to foreign aid agencies.
"There is starvation. People haven't had food or water for at least five days. There are carcasses. There will be an epidemic," said Andaman's member of Parliament, Manoranjan Bhakta.
Island officials say at least 3,754 people were missing amid crumbled homes, downed trees and mounds of dead animals. V.V. Bhat, chief secretary of the islands, said the missing could not be presumed dead because they could have survived in coconut groves that dot the islands.
In the Thai resort of Phuket, five elephants, normally used to haul logs in forests, were being sent to pull heavy debris in areas that are too hilly or muddy for vehicles.
Thailand's official death count was 4,812, with over half of them foreigners. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has warned the figure is likely to reach 8,000. Many people have blamed the high number of casualties on bureaucratic bungling and poor communication systems. Thaksin said the government will investigate why tsunami warnings largely failed to reach officials and tourist resorts.
Western health officials headed to devastated areas across Sri Lanka after officials warned about possible disease outbreaks among the 1 million people seeking shelter in camps.
"Our biggest battle and fear now is to prevent an epidemic from breaking out," said Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. "Clean water and sanitation is our main concern."