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Hard-hit areas await supplies; Bush announces fund-raising effort

LHOKNGA, Indonesia—Relief workers on Monday struggled to deliver desperately needed food, water and medical supplies to tsunami victims as President Bush enlisted two former presidents to lead a nationwide appeal for more help.

"America will be there to help," Bush said in announcing a private fund-raising effort headed by his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton.

On the other side of the world, humanitarian workers faced the daunting task of trying to get international aid to those who need it most. The sense of urgency was heightened by fears that homelessness, contaminated water and poor sanitation could lead to outbreaks of deadly diseases.

In Indonesia, the hardest hit country, crates of supplies stacked up in Jakarta while awaiting shipment to the overcrowded airport in Banda Aceh, a provincial capital on the island of Sumatra.

Nine military transport planes—five Indonesian and one each from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore—made aid runs from Jakarta's Halim Air Base to Banda Aceh on Monday, but four other flights were canceled because of airport congestion or mechanical problems.

Frustrated soldiers sorted and piled up mountains of aid—clothes stuffed into large rice bags and boxes of food—that would have to wait for another day.

"It's difficult because so much stuff is coming here and I just have a few sorties," said Indonesian Air Force Lt. Col. Fadjar, the head of terminal operations at the base. "Even if we get more aircraft, it will still be a problem because of the congestion here and in Banda Aceh."

At the adjoining civilian airport, so much aid has piled up that the collection center has stopped accepting donations for the time being.

One room was filled to the ceiling with boxes of instant noodles, all neatly stacked by volunteers. Bags of clothes were thrown into a huge pile in the airport terminal area, waiting to be catalogued and sorted.

"We cannot take all of this to Aceh," said Dewi Fatmawati, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who's helping to record all the donations. "We have to think of this as a long-term program to give aid to them over three months or up to a year, because that's the only way we can think."

Some items are being sent by ship from a Navy base outside Jakarta. The trip takes three days, but one ship hauls much more than a plane.

In Banda Aceh, four hours away by air, U.S. military crews and relief workers teamed up to load aid onto helicopters for delivery to remote villages that have been cut off from the rest of the world for more than a week.

"It's been eight days now since the tsunami, and we need to get the food and the water out as soon as possible," Navy Capt. Andrews Rice said, as a nearby team of sailors hustled to load boxes into a truck. "These people are getting very desperate."

Indonesian officials raised the death toll for their country from 80,000 to 94,081. The death toll in all 11 countries hit by tsunamis is expected to top 150,000.

"The devastation in the region defies comprehension," Bush said. "As many as 5 million people are thought to be homeless, or without food or shelter. Thousands more are missing, and millions are vulnerable to disease."

The private fund-raising drive was part of a White House effort to silence critics who've accused Bush of moving too slowly to confront the disaster. The president, who was taking a holiday break at his Texas ranch when the earthquake hit, remained silent for three days. After initially pledging $15 million in aid, the Bush administration upped the ante to $35 million, then to $350 million.

White House officials declined to set a target for the private fund-raising effort, which will seek donations from corporations and trust funds, as well as from individuals.

Bush, joined by his father, first lady Laura Bush and Clinton, visited the embassies of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India on Monday to express his condolences.

"We pray for the victims and families of this epic disaster. The American people and government stand with you as you recover and rebuild," he wrote in Thailand's condolence book.

In another display of presidential commitment to the relief effort, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, arrived in Thailand on Monday in the first stop of their tour of damaged areas.

Powell told reporters traveling with him that more than 4,000 Americans remained unaccounted for, although he cautioned that the number reflects inquiries by concerned family members and will drop significantly. U.S. officials have confirmed 15 American deaths.

White House officials bristled at suggestions that Bush was motivated by a desire to overcome any public relations damage from his initial response. Clinton defended the president, while hinting that he thought Bush could have acted sooner.

"I think that right now we're just where we need to be," Clinton told CNN. "We shouldn't be looking back, we should be looking forward."

The U.S. military has become increasingly active in the relief effort. According to the U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, more than 12,000 sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines are involved in the relief effort, along with at least 16 cargo planes, 60 helicopters and 21 Navy ships.

At least 430,000 pounds of food, medical supplies and other equipment have been delivered to the region.

Five ships and more than 5,200 sailors and Marines from the USS Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group were traveling through the Malacca Straits on their way to the stricken area.

The international help can't come fast enough to areas where dazed survivors are struggling to put their lives back in order while searching for relatives or dealing with the deaths of loved ones.

Some tsunami survivors have fled remote villages on Sumatra in search of food, safe drinking water and shelter. On Monday, small groups of villagers straggled into Lhoknga, about 12 miles south of Banda Aceh, after walking, in some cases, for nearly 24 hours.

Fauzi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said tsunami survivors in his remote village are on the verge of starvation despite two visits from aid workers.

"They brought food, but it is very little," Fauzi said. "It is just not enough at all."


(Stocking of the San Jose Mercury News reported from Lhoknga. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Moritsugu reported from Jakarta, Indonesia. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson, Warren Strobel and Drew Brown contributed to this report from Washington. )


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

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050103 TSUNAMI update, 20050103 Tsunami donate, 20050103 TSUNAMI military

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