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As tsunami death toll climbs past 150,000, relief efforts starting to jell

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Two weeks after the tsunami hit, the official death toll continues to rise, topping 150,000 Saturday as bodies were uncovered during the massive clean-up on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

At the same time, however, the massive international aid effort seems to have found its legs. Major relief efforts often become "chaotic," said Pat Johns, the emergency response coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, but "this time, it's going well."

And the World Health Organization said that no major disease outbreaks have been reported in the crowded refugee camps housing survivors.

Indonesia added another 2,737 people to the list of the confirmed dead Saturday, raising the number of victims in that country to 104,055 and pushing the global total over 150,000.

The hardest hit area stretches from Banda Aceh, a city at the northern tip of Sumatra, to the town of Meulaboh, about 125 miles down the coast, according to an initial assessment by a United Nations team. Further south, the U.N. team found that "the damage is less severe, but people are still in need of assistance."

The Indonesian government raised its estimate of the homeless to 655,132 on Saturday, but the actual number won't be known until a full survey of the coast can be carried out.

The United Nations' World Food Program is feeding about 130,000 refugees in Sumatra, with plans to start distributing a one-month supply of rice, beans and other food to another 140,000 over the weekend. If the government's estimate of the homeless is accurate, it means the food is reaching less than half of the people displaced by the tsunami.

World governments led by Australia, Japan, Germany and the United States have pledged almost $4 billion in aid, and private donations to relief groups add to the total resources becoming available.

At Banda Aceh, sacks of rice and boxes of biscuits are stacked high. Trucks rumble in and out of the World Food Program warehouse with signs on the front: CARE, World Vision, Mercy Corps.

United Nations agencies are in place, the major private relief organizations are hard at work and the U.S. military is playing a major logistical role, shuttling supplies up and down the coast in helicopters.

Military detachments from across the globe—Portugal, Spain, Pakistan, Germany—are also here supporting the effort, as are an array of Indonesian aid organizations.

With communications knocked out and transportation systems leveled, it took several days for the relief effort to get up to speed.

"Emergencies are always complex," said Eileen Burke of Save the Children.

"You always come across hiccups that slow your progress. You resolve them and move on."

The United Nations is doing the coordinating, holding daily meetings with dozens of relief groups from around the globe.

The humanitarian assistance is easy to see now, with trucks unloading food and supplies all around Banda Aceh, the hub of the relief effort. Cargo planes come and go and helicopters thunder overhead all day, delivering supplies along the coast, where dozens of towns were wiped out.

Also Saturday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan traveled to Sri Lanka to see the devastation there. Sri Lanka, with 30,000 killed, is the second-hardest hit country after Indonesia.

"We came to listen and to learn and I think you have given ... (us) some ideas," Annan told local officials.

More than 800,000 Sri Lankans were left homeless by the tsunami, and most will need food aid. The World Food Program has brought in enough food—rice, lentils and sugar—to feed 750,000 people for 15 days, the U.N. agency said Saturday.

"There is now enough food around Sri Lanka to feed everyone who needs it," said Jeff Taft-Dick, the World Food Program director in Sri Lanka. But he added that the relief effort is "only just beginning," as his agency believes that most of the homeless will need food aid for six months.

President Bush devoted his weekly radio address Saturday to reviewing U.S. efforts to help tsunami victims. He termed the $350 million in pledged federal aid "an initial commitment" and again encouraged Americans to donate cash to private relief groups such as the Red Cross, CARE and Catholic Relief Services. He noted that he recently signed legislation permitting Americans to deduct cash contributions for tsunami relief from their 2004 federal income tax.

Humanitarian-assistance workers have a colossal job ahead of them.

"I've been doing relief work for 30 years," said Johns, of Catholic Relief Services, who has worked in Cambodia, Ethiopia, East Timor, Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo, among other places. "This is the worst devastation I've ever seen. The only thing I can compare it to are the images of Hiroshima after they dropped the atomic bomb."

The World Food Program is bringing 240 tons of food a day into Banda Aceh by truck caravan from Medan, some 250 miles to the southeast, said Mike Huggins, the organization's local spokesman. On Friday night, the Australian military flew in 60 tons of high-energy biscuits.

In a fortuitous turn of events, the government of Japan donated 12,500 tons of rice that happened to be passing through the region en route to Bangladesh when the tsunami struck. They sent it to Banda Aceh instead.

A host of relief groups meet each day at the WFP headquarters—a tiny cinder-block building next to a tennis court—to decide where the food should go.

Until Friday night, when they received tents and cots, the staff here had been sleeping on a tennis court. About 50 people were sharing one bathroom and using buckets of water to bathe.

A caravan of trucks rumbles out of the nearby WFP warehouse each day and takes supplies to devastated villages and the dozens of refugee camps that have sprung up across the region.

On Saturday, they delivered a truckload of rice to a camp in Matayi, a Banda Aceh neighborhood where 3,500 people have taken up temporary residence on the grounds of a local television station.

A shed at the entrance is plastered with pictures of people who disappeared in the tsunami, hung there by relatives still hoping to find them.

Many of the people helping run the camp are victims of the tsunami themselves. They have developed a food-distribution system under which they have divided the camp into 150 groups of about 30 people. Each group receives a ration of rice, biscuits, noodles, cooking oil and milk each day.

The diet is monotonous, but the refugees said there is enough food.

Among the people waiting for something to eat on Saturday was Hasan Basri, 43, and his wife, Qunuti, 39. They come from a Banda Aceh suburb called Peukun Bada, which was leveled by the tsunami.

Basri, Qunuti and their 10-year-old daughter survived, but virtually everyone else on both sides of their extended family—some 40 people in all—disappeared.

Basri teaches accounting at a local university that was wiped out. "I have nothing left," he said. "I came here to find food."

His English was so good that Huggins of the WFP decided to hire him on the spot to help with the relief effort.

"This the world's worst natural disaster," Huggins said. "No one has dealt with a crisis like this before."

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(Moritsugu reported from Jakarta, Indonesia; Stocking reported from Banda Aceh, Indonesia.)

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

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