Lincoln crew delivers needed aid

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN – Helicopters from this U.S. Navy aircraft carrier flew repeated relief missions along the nearby shoreline of Indonesia on Sunday, delivering food, water and medical supplies to thousands of survivors stranded along the west coast of Aceh province after last week’s devastating tsunami.

Crew members returned from second day of relief efforts with reports that the helicopters have been mobbed by residents who in some cases tried to climb aboard and get a ride out. In many places, Americans found that the towns and villages suffered huge casualties: In Meulaboh, about 100 miles south of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, only 1,000 people survive out of a population of 60,000, said the Lincoln’s skipper, Capt. Kendall Card.

American naval officers set up a command post in Banda Aceh to coordinate U.S. flights in the province, in a level of cooperation between the two countries’ militaries rarely seen in recent years.

“This is the largest natural disaster of my lifetime and it changes the rule set,” Rear Adm. Doug Crowder, commander of the carrier group that includes the Lincoln, said aboard the warship. “It can’t help but be positive in my view.”

After a week of climbing death tolls and tales of devastation from the Indian Ocean region, where an estimated 150,000 lives were lost in the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis, the coordinator of U.N. emergency relief efforts said Sunday that backlogged supplies were beginning to reach afflicted areas.

“Good news is coming in by the hour,” coordinator Jan Egeland said.

He warned, however, that it still might take three more days to establish food distribution centers to Sri Lanka and longer for Indonesia’s most distant areas. Meanwhile, U.N. agencies also are dropping emergency supplies by helicopter to isolated villages in both nations, which sustained the greatest damage in the disaster.

Governments around the world have pledged nearly $2 billion toward relief efforts, backed by contributions and efforts by private organizations, and emergency supplies have been flowing to airports and warehouses in the region. The effort to get those supplies to the people most in need has been slowed by damaged roads, shattered infrastructure and too few aircraft.

Egeland said that an estimated 1.8 million people needed food, including 100,000 people in the East African nation of Somalia at the farthest reaches of the tsunami’s destruction, and that the United Nations would be able to reach most of them.

In Sri Lanka, many more aid trucks were seen Sunday than just a few days before on the main coastal highway heading from the capital, Colombo, to refugee camps and disaster sites in the south.

Aircraft continue to arrive in Colombo, and people line the highway in clumps along some stretches waiting for supplies to be dropped off.

Yet despite the progress, aid workers and victims complained that ongoing shortages and distribution problems remained significant.

Critics said the Sri Lankan government continues to insist that all medical aid be routed through its offices, creating delays, and it has only reluctantly lifted import taxes on medicines destined for the victims.

In the Indonesian city of Medan, meanwhile, a mountain of rice, instant noodles, crackers and bottled water sat Sunday at a military airfield waiting for shipment to Banda Aceh, about an hour’s flight to the north. Operations were slowed by physical constraints of the airport and infrastructure, the lack of coordination and miscommunications.

The Lincoln, with a crew of 6,000, has deployed at least 10 of its 17 helicopters to pick up aid supplies in Banda Aceh and carry them down the coast to tsunami victims. It also has sent ashore medical teams and advanced teams to coordinate other forms of aid the carrier could provide.

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