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Tsunami survivors have the basics—but rebuilding lives lies ahead

JAKARTA, Indonesia—One month after an epochal tsunami hit South Asia on Dec. 26, the basic needs of food and shelter for the survivors are largely being met, according to international aid agencies.

But more than 1 million throughout the region have lost their means of earning a living, from farmers and fishermen to tourist-resort diving instructors.

The number of dead is certain to be many thousands more than the current tabulation of more than 150,000. Tens of thousands are still unaccounted for a month later, and most are presumed dead. Official counts won't be completed for a year.

Having saved lives, governments and aid agencies face the monumental task of rebuilding them.

"It is enormous," Bo Asplund, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Indonesia, said Tuesday in a telephone interview from the devastated city of Banda Aceh. "It's going to take time."

Nowhere is the challenge greater than in Indonesia, which was closest to the epicenter of the massive earthquake that spawned the tidal wave. Search teams are still pulling hundreds of bodies a day from Banda Aceh's rubble. Though aid is reaching cut-off villages, delivering it remains a logistical nightmare.

With the U.S. and other militaries preparing to scale back their assistance efforts, the United Nations has brought in seven helicopters and at least one ship to deliver more of the aid.

Throughout the region, the massive relief effort has begun to shift from providing food and temporary shelter toward longer-term reconstruction.

"We're beginning to worry about issues like getting kids back to school and providing livelihoods to people, so we're on the path to recovery quite clearly," Asplund said.

The primary concerns are twofold: housing and jobs.

The United Nations' International Labor Office estimates that the tsunami wiped out jobs for 600,000 people in Indonesia and more than 400,000 in Sri Lanka, the second hardest-hit country.

Another 100,000 are thought to be out of work in Thailand, according to U.N. officials in that country.

The unemployment rate in the affected provinces of Indonesia has reached 30 percent or higher, the International Labor Office estimated, with most of the job losses in fishing, small-scale and plantation farming, and small business.

The tsunami destroyed fishing boats and nets or washed them out to sea, and wiped out acres of farmland, leaving behind such high concentrations of sea salt in some places that many crops won't grow until the salt somehow is washed out.

In Sri Lanka, where the losses were largely in fishing and tourism, the unemployment rate in the affected provinces probably tops 20 percent, the International Labor Office said.

While most of the larger hotels escaped with moderate damage, many of the smaller ones were wiped out, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga said in an interview with CNN.

The government is offering loans at low interest rates and granting land to small hotel owners so they can build about 300 yards inland from where their original structures stood, she said, a presumably safer location that still has access to the beach.

In Thailand, some aid agencies hope that the reconstruction will avoid the overdevelopment that had plagued the tourism and fishing industries.

The high number of tourist divers over the years may have caused more damage to the coral reefs than the tsunami did, said Hakan Bjorkman, the deputy representative of the U.N. Development Program in Bangkok.

More than 100 volunteer divers are cleaning up the debris—everything from television sets to deck chairs—that the tsunami left on the coral reefs.

"This is an opportunity to really get it right, because it wasn't sustainable," Bjorkman said. "Tourism wasn't sustainable. Nor was fishing sustainable."

But he added, "There is tension between the pressure to get people back to work and the need for more careful thinking."

Thailand also is undertaking what's been described as the world's largest forensics effort ever, the attempt to use DNA and other tests to identify more than 4,000 bodies that are decomposed beyond recognition. The painstaking work is expected to take months.

At least 150,000 people have died across the region, and some estimates put the total well above 200,000.

The biggest question mark remains Indonesia, where 96,232 bodies have been found, but another 132,197 people haven't been accounted for.

The Indonesian government announced Tuesday that it wouldn't add the number of missing people to the death toll for at least a year, though it would revise its official count as new bodies are discovered and buried.

Sri Lanka has announced that at least 30,000 people died, and several thousand are still missing.

The same issue exists on a smaller scale in other countries. In Thailand, 5,384 bodies have been found, and some 3,000 more people are still missing.

Another 10,000 are known dead in India, but one mystery is what happened to more than 5,000 people missing in the jungles of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If most of the missing in Indonesia and elsewhere eventually are declared dead, the death toll from the tsunami will be more than 280,000, making it the fifth or sixth largest natural disaster in the last two centuries.


(Moritsugu is a special correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.)


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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050125 Tsunami status

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