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Survivors swarm relief helicopters; aid pledges top $2 billion

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Driven to desperation by hunger, grief and the growing threat of disease, flood survivors swarmed around U.S. military helicopters Saturday as international aid began to reach remote regions devastated by last weekend's tsunamis.

Jostling crowds swarmed to helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, as soon as they touched down in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia.

Pledges of worldwide help topped $2 billion, but drenching rains and flash floods complicated efforts to deliver badly needed food, water and medical supplies to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the two hardest hit countries.

The confirmed death toll from earthquake-driven waves topped 123,000 and the U.N.'s disaster coordinator estimated it could reach 150,000. Health care workers braced for more deaths from infections and diseases related to contaminated water and poor sanitation.

"Most of the doctors and nurses who worked here were either victims themselves, or they are searching for their missing families," said Sahat Edison Sitorur, the head doctor of the military hospital at Banda Aceh, the devastated provincial capital. "What we've seen so far in terms of patients and casualties is just the tip of the iceberg."

Ira Lippke of Long Beach, Calif., a hospital volunteer, said infections are already taking a toll.

"We've seen several people die of cuts that became infected. They had gangrene, dirt and pus in their wounds. It's so incredibly tragic," Lippke said.

"The carnage is of a scale that defies comprehension," President Bush said in a somber New Year's Day radio address. "As the people of this devastated region struggle to recover, we offer our love and compassion, and our assurance that America will be there to help."

Bush ordered U.S. flags lowered to half-staff from Monday until Friday as a sign of respect for the victims. On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, will lead a delegation to ravaged areas to help direct $350 million in promised U.S. aid.

Japan moved ahead of the United States as the largest single donor on Saturday by pledging $500 million, pushing the worldwide total to more than $2 billion. Bush directed Americans who want to make private donations to a government-sponsored web site, www.usafreedomcorps.gov.

The devastation in Banda Aceh was a sobering reminder of the magnitude of the rebuilding task. Parts of the city appeared to have been leveled by a powerful bomb, with bits and pieces of daily life—shoes, mattresses, toys—stuck together in piles of thick, black mud.

The quake and the tsunami it unleashed killed nearly 40,000 of the city's 400,000 residents. Boats landed where cars should be. Cars crashed down where living room couches once stood. And the smell of death hung in the air Saturday.

"Half the city has been completely washed out," said Sabine Rens, head of Doctors Without Borders' Indonesia chapter. "People are in need of everything—they need food, they need shelter, they need medical care."

It's the same throughout the remote province, Rens said: "From village to village, from town to town, there's just nothing left. You sometimes see a mosque, although it is barely standing. And then everything else is flattened."

Working from dawn to dusk from the deck of an aircraft carrier cruising offshore, Navy crewmen shuttled supplies by helicopter to some of those villages.

"Aceh has drowned. There's nothing left. We're finished," one resident told a CNN reporter who accompanied a relief mission to a town 70 miles south of Banda Aceh. Another man grabbed the reporter's microphone to express his gratitude for the U.S. aid. "Thank you, thank you!" he said.

Relief workers face a mind-numbing task, complicated by bureaucratic tangles, inadequate or damaged transportation networks, bad weather and political instability.

"This is a very complex operation. If it is not managed properly, we can actually slow down the relief effort," Andrew Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said on the CBS "Early Show."

In Sri Lanka, torrential rains of up to 10 inches triggered flooding Saturday in the eastern part of the island nation, blocking relief supplies for tens of thousands of refugees. Some makeshift refugee camps had to be evacuated.

The USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel, was on its way to Sri Lanka loaded with a contingent of 1,500 U.S. Marines and a fleet of about 20 helicopters. U.S. officials said the relief effort would include parts of Sri Lanka that are under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an insurgency that the State Department has listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga called for an end to the two-decade-old civil war between Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups.

"Let us learn from this disastrous experience and unite to build a new nation," she said in a New Year's Day message.

In Indonesia, the hardest hit country, with more than 80,000 estimated dead on Sumatra alone, local volunteers struggled to meet the needs of flood survivors. Members of an Indonesian political party gathered on a bridge Saturday morning, loading food and medical supplies onto a boat docked at one of the grimmest places in Banda Aceh.

Bloated beyond recognition, more than a hundred bodies still floated in the river, pressed against the pilings of the bridge. Above, a 60-foot passenger boat had come to rest next to the third story of a riverside home. The tsunami had tossed it atop a 30-foot stack of muddy debris.

On the south side of the river, a large section of the city had been razed. Dazed people still wandered the muddy streets, looking for food, shelter and their missing families.

Among those waiting for help was Rahayamin, a 47-year-old woman who lost 15 relatives in the tsunami, including a daughter and two grandchildren.

She waited in line for crackers, biscuits and clothing, but said her supplies wouldn't last very long.

"All I can do now," she said, "is cry."

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(Stocking reported from Banda Aceh; Johnson reported from Ambalangado, Sri Lanka. Knight Ridder correspondent Ron Hutcheson in Washington anchored this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI

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