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Devastation widespread along the coast of Sumatra

CALANG, Indonesia—This town no longer exists. It's been sheared off, washed into the sea. It's history.

Some 9,000 people once lived here. Now, three-quarters of them are dead. Only a single two-story house remains upright. Survivors live under plastic sheets.

It's been three weeks since tsunamis washed over coastal Asia. Food aid is arriving for survivors. Yet veteran relief workers still gasp at the scale of the destruction. It's as if a powerful firestorm rolled through.

"You can't compare it to anything," Norwegian relief worker Bjorn Stower says as he scans the rubble that was once Calang.

"I've been in the Angola war zone in `96 and `97. I've been in Kosovo in `99, and in Albania two times in `99. Then I've been to Peru two times in 2001 for an earthquake. I was also in southern Iraq in April 2003. And I've been two times in Algeria in 2003," Stower says. "It's difficult to find words. I can't explain it to you. It's just too horrible."

Up and down the coast of northern Sumatra, two Knight Ridder reporting teams saw village after village of devastation from the Dec. 26 tsunami. In some places, an earthquake-triggered wall of water 75 feet high jack hammered the coast. It snapped concrete bridge pylons and flung 100-foot boats onto rooftops far from shore. Torrents of lumber, upturned cars, dead bodies and corrugated tin washed down streets, bulldozing everything to flatness.

The seaside village of Sudhen, north of Calang, simply disappeared. The tsunami washed away even the land, leaving only a sandbar off the coast. It's hard to imagine that, just three weeks ago, 200 houses stood there and fishermen set out that fateful morning to earn their keep.

Seen by boat and from helicopter, the coastal areas reveal a constant ribbon of shorn trees and bare rock. Along rivers and tidal flats, huge expanses are leveled.

But the destruction didn't stop there.

Rushing water burst through every gap in the rolling forested hills that line the Sumatran coast, sweeping away buildings, palm trees, boats, cars, people, water buffalo and anything else in its path.

"The wave rose up to the sky and fell on the coastal villages and then moved forward like a wall, pushing up everything in front of it," said Zainal Abidin, a 32-year-old man who watched the tsunami unfold from his village in the inland hills.

The official death toll in the Aceh province near the epicenter of the quake-tsunami stands at 81,665 people. But provincial officials tally another 131,495 people as lost and possibly dead, bringing the potential total to over 210,000 in this stricken province alone.

More than a mile inland, the water swept into rice fields, sending farmers scurrying for the hills and turning a wide expanse of bright green rice stalks into a muddy brown wasteland as far as the eye can see.

Then, running out of steam at a foothill or an embankment, it finally stopped. And in the blink of an eye, the water receded, pulling bodies and debris out to sea. Some may never be found. In a mere 15 minutes, according to eyewitnesses, the tsunami had done its damage.

Left behind was a landscape that aid workers compare to a war zone.

"It looks like bombs went off one after another," said Kristin Dadey, a program officer with the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, a group providing aid to migrants that is active in the relief effort. "Entire bridges were picked up and thrown half a kilometer."

The pylons of a destroyed bridge greet the handful of relief boats sailing into Lamno, a town just south of where Sudhen stood.

The mile-long ride up river could be a set for Apocalypse Now. Both banks look like they've been firebombed. Except for a few soaring coconut palms, everything has been stripped for a couple hundred feet inland, leaving behind a landscape of muddy earth strewn with debris. Military helicopters buzz overhead, making aid runs to villages up and down the coast.

The hills shielded some communities from the tsunami. In Lamno, women in broad-rimmed hats made of palm fronds worked the still-green rice fields last week in the humid heat of the rainy season.

But even those spared death and destruction are suffering in the aftermath. Many villages still don't have electricity, three weeks after the disaster. Food is in short supply, and prices have skyrocketed.

The tsunami demolished the coastal road, hampering the distribution of aid and cutting off the surviving villages from the truck route that brought them goods.

Mayanti, 30, has stopped cooking meals at the restaurant she runs out of her house in Lamno, because the ingredients are too expensive to make a profit. One day last week, she started selling the cooking oil and sugar that she had already bought at inflated prices.

She offered about a pint of cooking oil, in a clear plastic bag knotted at the top, for 60 cents, twice what it normally would cost. By early afternoon, she had only three takers, with some two dozen bags to go.

Refugees in Calang (pronounced cha-LANG), a former Dutch colonial port that was one of the larger towns along the coast, scrounge amid the debris or take birdbaths in open-air wells.

"I'm looking for nails to use as pegs for a tent," said Zamzami, a 62-year-old coffee shop owner who saw his business washed away.

It takes little to tap into the anguish that Zamzami feels, only a question about his coffee shop, which could seat 30 people.

"I don't know what to do. ... I don't have any money left. Everything has disappeared," he said.

Bakhtiar, a 40-year-old prison guard who uses only one name, offered a tour of what was Calang, a thriving district capital on Sumatra's western shore.

From the vantage point of a raised concrete slab, apparently the foundation of a house, he described the desolate panorama: "There were houses here, and offices. Over there was a shopping area. There was a market, a bookstore, clothing stores, everything."

He points to where once stood the town gas station, two mosques, schools, the wharf, two banks, street upon street of stores and residential areas. Now, only rubble is left.

On a little piece of asphalt, someone has written in bright yellow paint: Rami Lapar (We are hungry) and Bawa Kami (Take us), apparently hoping a pilot would see.

The tsunami victims living in emergency camps near larger ruined villages and towns can generally get relief supplies. But they are still deeply traumatized.

"At night, when everything is quiet, you hear sobs. During the day, people are just fixated on getting food, water and shelter," said Chris Gentry, an American entrepreneur living in Bali who joined with other businesses there to boat in relief supplies to "people waving on the beach."

Almost universally, relief workers voice astonishment at the destruction.

"I'd been told that there was no town left," said Tom Smith, a civil engineer from Silverdale, Wash., working for the New York-based International Rescue Committee, which specializes in providing aid to victims of civil unrest. "But even now, I walk across the rubble and it hurts my stomach. I can't imagine what it would've been like to be in there."

Smith said he has pondered how the town might reconstruct itself, and thought of the Japanese cities leveled by U.S. nuclear weapons in World War II.

"The only reference I could come up with is maybe they should talk to the people from Hiroshima or Nagasaki and see how they felt about going back there afterward," Smith said.

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(Special correspondent Moritsugu reported from Lhong and Lamno, Indonesia; Johnson reported from Calang.)

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

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

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