Relief efforts hit snags

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – As the world scrambled to the rescue, survivors fought over packs of noodles in quake-stricken Indonesian streets Wednesday while relief supplies piled up at the airport for lack of cars, gas or passable roads to move them. The official death toll across 11 countries soared past 77,000, and the Red Cross predicted it could exceed 100,000.

Bodies were piled into mass graves in the belief that burial would ward off disease. Paramedics in southern India began vaccinating thousands of survivors against cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery, and authorities sprayed bleaching powder on beaches where bodies have been recovered. In Sri Lanka, reports of waterborne disease such as diarrhea caused fears of an epidemic.

President Bush announced the United States, India, Australia and Japan have formed an international coalition to coordinate relief and reconstruction of the 3,000 miles of Indian Ocean rim walloped by Sunday’s earthquake and the tsunami it unleashed.

“We’re facing a disaster of unprecedented proportion in nature,” said Simon Missiri, a top Red Cross official. “We’re talking about a staggering death toll.”

On hundreds of Web sites, the messages were brief but poignant: “Missing: Christina Blomee in Khao Lak,” or simply, “Where are you?” All conveyed the aching desperation of people the world over whose friends and family went off in search of holiday-season sun and sand and haven’t been heard from for four days.

But even as hope for the missing dwindled, survivors continued to turn up Wednesday. In Sri Lanka, where more than 22,000 died, a lone fisherman named Sini Mohammed Sarfudeen was rescued by an air force helicopter crew after clinging to his wave-tossed boat for three days.

Indian air force planes evacuated thousands of survivors from the remote island of Car Nicobar. Some of them had walked for days from their destroyed villages to reach a devastated but functioning airfield, where they were shuttled out 80 to 90 at a time.

Journalists were not allowed to leave the base to verify reports that about 8,000 people were dead there, but at the base alone, 67 officers and their families were missing and feared dead.

India’s death toll rose to nearly 7,000, while Indonesia’s stood at 45,268, but authorities said this did not include a full count from Sumatra’s west coast, where more than 10,000 deaths were suspected in one town alone.

In Sumatra, the Florida-sized Indonesian island close to the epicenter of the quake, the view from the air was of whole villages ripped apart, covered in mud and seawater. In one of the few signs of life, a handful of desperate people scavenged a beach for food. On the streets of Banda Aceh, the main town of Sumatra’s Aceh province, the military managed to drop supplies from vehicles and fights broke out over packs of instant noodles.

Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, military commander of Aceh province, said after flying over the stricken region that 75 percent of the west coast of Sumatra was destroyed.

Footage shot by a cameraman on the military helicopter showed town after town covered in mud and sea water. Homes had their roofs ripped off or were flattened.

A solitary mosque and green treetops were all that broke the line of water in one town.

With tens of thousands of people still missing across the entire region, Peter Ress, Red Cross operations support chief, said the death toll could top 100,000. More than 500,000 were reported injured.

“We have little hope, except for individual miracles,” Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the Accor hotel group, said of the search for thousands of tourists and locals missing from beach resorts of southern Thailand – including 2,000 Scandinavians.

The State Department said 12 Americans died in the disaster – seven in Sri Lanka and five in Thailand. About 2,000 to 3,000 Americans were unaccounted for.

Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, talked by phone Wednesday with leaders of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India.

“We’re still in the stage of immediate help. But slowly but surely, the size of the problem will become known, particularly when it comes to rebuilding infrastructure and community to help these affected parts of the world get back up on their feet,” Bush said afterward.

Dana Van Alphan of the Pan American Health Organization issued a statement declaring there was no danger of corpses contaminating water or soil because bacteria and viruses cannot survive in dead bodies. The organization said it issued the statement, hoping to avert mass burials of tens of thousands of unidentified victims.

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