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Scope of devastation, remoteness slow relief efforts

PEUKAN BADA, Indonesia—No food or medicine has yet arrived in what remains of this village wedged between mountains and the sea in Sumatra that 1,000 people called home just a week ago.

Virtually every building, save the local mosque, vanished in the tsunami that started with a massive earthquake whose epicenter was 90 miles away.

But as in much of the rest of Sumatra, in northwestern Indonesia, relief efforts for survivors have been stymied because the giant wave washed out roads and bridges, killed power and phone lines, destroyed most buildings and littered the coast with debris.

"I have no place to live," said Anwar Haji Maksum, who lost his wife and two of his four sons in the giant wave. "I have no one to help me."

It will be some time before aid arrives in places like Peukan Bada, despite the $2 billion outpouring of international support.

"I learned this morning that every single bridge on the west coast was washed out," Oliver Hall, the leader of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team, said Sunday. "They've got mountains behind them and the sea behind them. How are we going to get aid to them?"

Similar questions are being asked across South Asia Sunday, where the chief task is turning from counting the dead—now estimated by aid agencies to be about 150,000—to helping the survivors.

"It is clear that we have to mourn those who have died, but we really have to focus on the living," said UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said on "Face the Nation."

Relief workers are struggling to take the international aid now flowing into the region and get it to an estimated 5 million people who need assistance, including 1.8 million who need food aid immediately.

"Food is arriving, water is arriving, medicines and other resources are arriving," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on "Face the Nation." "The challenge will be ... retail distribution."

Food should get to 700,000 people in Sri Lanka—most of the country in need of it—within three days, Jan Egeland, the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, said on "Fox News Sunday."

But Egeland warned that because of logistical difficulties, it could take weeks to reach the most isolated places in Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the devastation, where he said 1 million people need food.

"You will see, in the next day or two, a very, very big and effective aid organization taking shape," Egeland promised.

U.S. government aid for the disaster—now a pledged $350 million—could reach more than a billion and would be money well spent, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted on "Fox News Sunday."

"It offers a remarkable foreign policy opportunity for the United States ... This could be a breakthrough, coming out of this tragedy, in which we really demonstrate leadership," Lugar said. "But that calls for money."

Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush traveled Sunday to tour the region and attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in Jakarta on Thursday. The session will attempt to coordinate international aid efforts and discuss setting up an early warning system for the region, said an Indonesian government official.

Among others attending the meeting will be U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The Herculean task facing relief workers came into sharp focus in northwestern Sumatra where the quake and tsunami devastation is greatest.

The provincial capital of Banda Aceh lies at the northwestern tip of Indonesia's 17,508-island archipelago, and is reached via a long, pothole-ridden, two-lane road.

The inaccessibility means that search and rescue teams are still trying to locate survivors, entire missing communities that may be living off what food they can find in the jungle. From that perspective, it's still not entirely clear how many people need aid and exactly where some of them are.

At a two-hour meeting Sunday in Jakarta, U.N. relief representatives and those from several countries discussed how to use their combined assets most effectively.

Militaries from several countries, including the United States, Indonesia and Japan, have pitched in, because they have the equipment and training to operate in isolated areas.

U.S. military helicopter drops over the weekend from offshore aircraft carriers brought the first deliveries of assistance to some groups of refugees on the west coast. Between 10,000 and 12,000 U.S. military personnel are involved in the operation now, Powell said.

"The U.S. military assets are really worth their weight in gold," Egeland said.

The Indonesian navy this weekend also managed to deliver some aid to coastal areas, but in limited volumes, because sailors could only reach the debris-strewn coast in small boats.

Basic health supplies have started to reach Aceh province, including enough anti-malaria pills, anti-diarrhea medication, disinfectant, bandages and the like to protect 200,000 people for two weeks.

"The drop of water has turned into a trickle, and hopefully it will be a full-blown tap soon," said John Budd, communications director in Indonesia for UNICEF, the United Nation's agency that deals with children's issues.

With an estimated 1.2 million people in Aceh affected by the tsunami—not including the dead—the sheer volume of assistance that needs to be delivered is staggering.

UNICEF plans call for delivering 676,000 vitamin A pills, the same number of deworming tablets, and a million each of iron pills and water purification tablets.

With the risk of a measles outbreak high, the Indonesian government has decided to send its entire stock of 40,000 vaccines to Aceh, and UNICEF will supply an additional 28,000, as well a restock the government's 40,000-vaccine supply.

In hard-hit Peukan Bada, survivor Maksum said he hoped aid would come soon so their community could be revived.

"This is the only land I have," Maksum said. "If the government will help rebuild, I will be happy to live here again. Even if they build just one room here, I will take that place and make it my home."

But Heri Syahrial, a 27-year-old university student who lost nine family members in the disaster—including his parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents—said he would never live in Peukan Bada again.

"I don't want to stay here anymore," Syahrial said. "This is a ghost town."

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(Ben Stocking of the San Jose Mercury News reported from Peukan Bada, Moritsugu reported from Jakarta. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Matt Stearns in Washington contributed to 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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