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Tsunami victims remain without medical assistance, food

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Thousands of survivors of last week's earthquake and tsunami were still without food, water and basic medical care Wednesday throughout Indonesia's devastated Aceh province, despite a massive U.S.-led aid effort and international assistance pledges that reached $3 billion.

Medical care remained largely unavailable along much of the 120-mile stretch of coast hit hardest by the underwater earthquake and the deadly waves that came crashing ashore afterward.

Injured refugees reported walking for days before reaching medical help, and volunteers returning from devastated towns said they encountered many refugees too weak or hurt to seek help. The refugees are subsisting on coconut milk and whatever food they can scavenge from the ruins, the volunteers said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took an aerial tour of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, on the eve of a summit on relief and reconstruction for the tsunami-hit areas. Powell declared the devastation worse than anything he's ever seen.

"I've been through war and I've been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other operations, but I've never seen anything like this," he said after his 30-minute helicopter tour.

"I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave," Powell said. "The power of the wave to destroy bridges, to destroy factories, to destroy homes, to destroy crops, to destroy everything in its path is amazing."

Bush, whose state suffered through a series of hurricanes last year, was equally stunned.

"Our hearts are with you and we will be with you in the long haul," he said. "The American people and our government will continue to provide relief, but we will be part of the recovery efforts as well."

Elsewhere, other countries took time Wednesday to assess the tsunami's affects on their citizens.

In Washington, the State Department announced that 20 Americans were presumed dead, 19 in Thailand and one in Sri Lanka. That figure is in addition to the 16 U.S. citizens already confirmed dead. The department didn't announce the names of the dead and presumed dead, citing privacy concerns.

Europe came to a virtual standstill Wednesday as people paused for three minutes at noon to remember the dead. Subways, trains and buses stopped in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Rome and Stockholm. Schools across the continent fell silent, and in Spain television programs were replaced with black and white photographs of the disaster.

With the death toll among vacationing Swedes likely to top 1,000, Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said the disaster was "something we will never forget has happened. We have lost so many, a father, a mother, grandfather, our child, little sister, friend."

The official death toll for Indonesia stands at just over 94,000. But relief workers have yet to visit much of the coast south of Banda Aceh. Before the Dec. 26 disaster, about 700,000 people lived along the coastal road stretching south 200 miles from Banda Aceh.

Volunteers interviewed Wednesday said it was clear residents had died there in overwhelming numbers.

In the town of Leupeng, for example, only 400 of 7,800 residents survived, according to Freddy Sutrisno, the head of the Global Rescue Network, a Jakarta-based relief agency whose workers were the first to reach the devastated town earlier this week.

Those who remain in the town are desperate to get out, but many are suffering from compound fractures and other severe injuries and are too weak to walk for help. They are living on coconuts and the occasional chicken, slain with a machete, the volunteers said.

At Lhoknga, just south of Banda Aceh, refugees arriving Wednesday said they'd walked for days before reaching the first medical facility they'd seen—a beachside tent that Global Rescue had set up to dispense food, water and medicine.

Many suffered from gaping wounds, infected cuts and severe respiratory problems caused by having inhaled seawater. Nearly all are suffering from dehydration, relief workers say.

Those with broken limbs or other wounds that make them too weak to walk long distances remain in their ravaged villages and huddle together to help each other survive, according to volunteer workers.

Injured refugees continue to tell stories of miraculous survival.

One man being treated at a field hospital here walked for five days, covering 47 miles, seeking treatment for a 6-inch gash in his abdomen that exposed his intestines.

The man, who identified himself as Zainun, said he'd been more than a half-mile offshore when the seawater suddenly disappeared from beneath his boat, leaving it and flapping fish stranded on the sand.

Then three successive waves crashed over him, carrying him to shore. He was injured when the dislodged corrugated metal roof of a house slammed into him.

The man walked three miles inland before realizing he was injured. A friend found him and notified his family. The man, his wife and their seven children then set out for Banda Aceh, living on spring water and instant noodles they found in an abandoned truck. His four sons propped him up as he limped along.

"The waves were so high," Zainun said. "I thought I had no hope."

The U.S. military is using helicopters to evacuate the injured and sick from remote areas of Indonesia to facilities where they can receive medical treatment. But even with 90 helicopters, many victims remain out of reach.

Lt. Cmdr. Greg Hicks, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Navy has a 40-member medical disaster relief team on the ground in Indonesia "helping to assess what's needed and where."

Another team of about 25 disease and preventive medicine specialists have been on the ground within "the last couple of days" to help assess efforts to stem outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and malaria.

Hicks said he didn't know if they had set up any aid stations in remote areas yet.

International aid agencies said they believe the situation is improving.

A United Nations report said a backlog of supplies is starting to clear up, and the Banda Aceh airport, shut down Tuesday after a jet carrying relief supplies struck a cow or a water buffalo on the runway, has reopened.

"Things have improved," said Karen Dukess, a spokeswoman for UNICEF. "There were bottlenecks at regional airports. Now, we're getting supplies to people who need them."

But Dukess said major areas of Aceh remain accessible only by military helicopter, and the U.N. said there's still a dire need for easily consumable instant food, medicines, electric generators, radios, masks and body bags.

Powell and Bush arrived in the region on the eve of a summit on relief and reconstruction for the tsunami-hit areas. Powell and top officials from 20 other countries, including at least a dozen heads of state, are to focus Thursday on how to spend an unprecedented $3 billion in aid.

New pledges by Australia and Germany pushed them to the top of the list of donors. Australia raised its total to $810 million and Germany to $674 million. Previously, Japan's $500 million pledge topped the donor list, followed by the United States with $350 million.

In Jakarta Thursday morning, Powell and top officials from 20 other countries, including at least a dozen heads of state, met to address how to spend an unprecedented $3 billion in aid for the tsunami-hit areas.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for an urgent and coordinated response to the disaster. He said the response to an unprecedented natural disaster needed to be equally unprecedented "so that we can immediately put an end to the human suffering and misery that came after. ... The death tolls must not be allowed to rise any further."

Yudhoyono also called for an early warning system for the Indian Ocean to try to protect people from similar future disasters.

"As the world community, we should not be counting costs today so that in the future we will not be counting lives lost," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for more workers and supplies, and he appealed to donors to make good quickly on their pledges. He set the price tag for the first six months of the relief effort at $977 million. That's in addition to the $59 million previously requested by the Red Cross and Red Crescent, its equivalent in the Muslim world, he said.

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(Stocking, of the San Jose Mercury News, reported from Banda Aceh; Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Moritsugu reported from Jakarta. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents William Douglas, Warren P. Strobel and Drew Brown in Washington and Matthew Schofield in Stockholm contributed to this report.)

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

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050105 TSUNAMI HOSPITAL, 20050105 Tsunami debt

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