The death toll from last weekend's earthquake-tsunami catastrophe rose to more than 114,000 on Thursday as Indonesia uncovered more and more dead from ravaged Sumatra island, where pilots dropped food to remote villages still unreachable by rescue workers. A false alarm that new killer waves were about to hit sparked panic in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The increase came after Indonesia reported nearly 28,000 newly confirmed dead in Sumatra, which was closest to the epicenter of last weekend's massive earthquake and was overwhelmed by the tsunami that followed. Some 60 percent of Banda Aceh, the main city in northern Sumatra was destroyed, the U.N. children's agency estimated, and 115 miles of the island's northwest coast — lined with villages — was inundated.
Indonesia, with around 80,000 dead, was the worst hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The total across 12 nations in southern Asia and East Africa was likely to rise, with thousands still missing and fears that disease could bring a new wave of deaths.
Tens of thousands of residents fled coasts in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand after warnings that a new tsunami was about to strike after new aftershocks hit the Indian Ocean Thursday.
India issued a tsunami warning at midday, but then hours later its science minister, Kapil Sibal, went on television to announce the warning was incorrect and based on information received from a U.S. research firm.
Fears of a new tsunami were "unscientific, hogwash and should be discarded," Sibal said.
Still, the alert sparked panic among people traumatized by Sunday's devastation.
"We got into a truck and fled," said 40-year-old Gandhimathi of Nagappattinam in India's Tamil Nadu state, who said authorities told her to leave her home. "We took only a few clothes and left behind all of our belongings, everything we had."
Sri Lanka's military later told residents there to be vigilant but not to panic, while coastal villagers climbed onto rooftops or sought high ground. "There is total confusion here," said Rohan Bandara in the coastal town of Tangalle.
Tsunami sirens in southern Thailand sent people dashing from beaches, but only small waves followed the alarms.
An estimated 5.7 magnitude aftershock was recorded in seas northwest of Indonesia's Sumatra island by the Hong Kong observatory Thursday morning, along with earlier, overnight quakes at India's Andaman and Nicobar islands. But a 5.7 quake would be about 1,000 times less powerful than Sunday's, and probably would have "negligible impact," said geologist Jason Ali of University of Hong Kong.
The false alarm highlighted the lack of an organized tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean region — which experts have already said may have worsened the crisis after Sunday's 9.0 magnitude quake hit off Sumatra's coast, sending a massive wave racing at 500 mph across the Indian Ocean.
Sibal, the Indian science minister, said Thursday's warning was based on information from a U.S. research group that "claimed they have some sensors and equipment through which they suggest there was a possibility of an earthquake."
He did not elaborate on how the information was incorrect.
Meanwhile, military ships and planes rushed to get desperately needed aid to Sumatra's ravaged coast. Countless corpses strewn on the streets rotted under the tropical sun causing a nearly unbearable stench.
Food drops began along the coast, mostly of instant noodles and medicines, with some of the areas "hard to reach because they are surrounded by cliffs," said Budi Aditutro, head of the government's relief team.
Government institutions in Aceh province, the territory on Sumatra's northern tip, have ceased to function and basic supplies such as fuel have almost run out, forcing even ambulances to ration gasoline.
On the streets of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, fights have broken out over packets of noodles dropped from military vehicles.
"I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and weeks ahead," U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said.
The United States, India, Australia and Japan have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts, President Bush announced.
"We will prevail over this destruction," Bush said from his Texas ranch Wednesday.
The number of deaths in Indonesia stood at about 52,000. Authorities there said that did not include a full count from Sumatra's west coast, and UNICEF estimated the toll for that country alone could be 80,000.
Sri Lanka reported 24,700 dead, India more than 7,300 and Thailand around 2,400 — though that country's prime minister said he feared the toll would go to 6,800. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
The disaster struck a band of the tropics that not only is heavily populated but attracts tourists from all corners. Throughout the world, people sought word of missing relatives, from small-town Sri Lankan fishermen to Europeans on sand-and-sun holidays.
On hundreds of Web sites, the messages were brief but poignant: "Missing: Christina Blomee in Khao Lak," or simply, "Where are you?"
But even as hope for the missing dwindled, survivors continued to turn up.
A 2-year-old Swedish boy was reunited with his father days after the toddler was found alone on a roadside in Thailand's southern beach resort island of Phuket. In Sri Lanka, a lone fisherman named Sini Mohammed Sarfudeen was rescued Wednesday by an air force helicopter crew after clinging to his wave-tossed boat for three days.
Rescue workers on Thursday plied the dense forests of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands — an archipelago just to the northwest of the quake's epicenter — where authorities fear as many as 10,000 more people may be buried in mud and thick vegetation. Many hungry villagers were surviving on coconut milk, rescuers said.
Mohammad Yusef, 60, a fisherman who fled his village and was holed up at a Catholic church in the territory's capital Port Blair along with about 800 others, said all 15 villages on the coast of Car Nicobar island had been destroyed.
"There's not a single hut which is standing," he told The Associated Press. "Everything is gone. Most of the people have gone up to the hills and are afraid to come down," Yusef said.
Many villagers had not eaten for two days and said that crocodiles had washed ashore during the disaster, compounding the horror of more than 50 aftershocks since Sunday's quake.
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Read below for Tsunami FAQ's, Safety Tips, and Did You Know Facts
Tsunamis: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What Is a Tsunami?
A: A tsunami (pronounced “soo-nah-mee”) is a series of waves of extremely long wave length and long period generated in a body of water by an impulsive disturbance that vertically displaces the water. The term tsunami was adopted for general use in 1963 by an international scientific conference. Tsunami is a Japanese word represented by two characters: "tsu" and "nami." The character "tsu" means harbor, and the character "nami" means wave. In the past, tsunamis were often referred to as "tidal waves." The term "tidal wave" is a misnomer. Tides are the result of gravitational influences of the moon, sun, and planets. Tsunamis are not caused by the tides and are unrelated to the tides; although a tsunami striking a coastal area is influenced by the tide level at the time of impact.
Q: What Causes a Tsunami?
A: There are many causes of tsunamis but the most prevalent is earthquakes. In addition, landslides, volcanic eruptions, explosions, and even the impact of cosmic bodies, such as meteorites, can generate tsunamis.
Q: How Do Earthquakes Generate Tsunamis?
A: Tsunamis can be generated when the sea floor abruptly shifts and vertically displaces the overlying water from its equilibrium position. Waves are formed as the displaced water mass attempts to regain its equilibrium. The main factor which determines the initial size of a tsunami is the amount of vertical sea floor deformation. Not all earthquakes generate tsunamis. To generate tsunamis, earthquakes must occur underneath or near the ocean, be large and create movements in the sea floor. All oceanic regions of the world can experience tsunamis, but in the Pacific Ocean there is a much more frequent occurrence of large, destructive tsunamis because of the many large earthquakes along the margins of the Pacific Ocean.
Q: How Do Landslides, Volcanic Eruptions, and Cosmic Collisions Generate Tsunamis?
A: Any disturbance that displaces a large water mass from its equilibrium position can generate a tsunami. Generally tsunamis caused by landslides or volcanic eruptions dissipate more quickly than Pacific-wide tsunamis caused by some earthquakes and rarely affect coastlines distant from the source.
Q: How Do Tsunamis Differ From Other Water Waves?
A: Tsunami waves are shallow-water waves with long periods and wave lengths. (A wave is classified a shallow-water wave when the ratio between the water depth and its wavelength gets very small. The speed of a shallow-water wave is equal to the square root of the product of the acceleration of gravity (32ft/sec/sec or 980cm/sec/sec) and the depth of the water.) Shallow water waves are different from wind-generated waves (the waves many of us have observed on the beach). Wind-generated waves usually have period (time between two succesional waves) of five to twenty seconds and a wavelength (distance between two successional waves) of about 50 to 600 feet (15 to 200 meters) A tsunami can have a period in the range of 10 minutes to 1 hour and a wavelength in excess of 700 km (430 miles).
Q: What Happens to a Tsunami as it Approaches the Shore?
A: "As the tsunami wave reaches the shallower water above a continental shelf, friction with the shelf slows the front of the wave. As the tsunami approaches shore, the trailing waves pile onto the waves in front of them, like a rug crumpled against a wall creating a wave that may rise up to 30 feet before hitting the shore. Although greatly slowed, a tsunami still bursts onto land at freeway speeds, with enough momentum to flatten buildings and trees and to carry ships miles inland." (From: Waves of Destruction by Tim Folger, Discover Magazine, May 1994, pp. 69-70)
Q: What Are the Impacts of a Tsunami?
A: Tsunamis can savagely attack coastlines, causing devastating property damage and loss of life.
Q: Are Tsunamis All the Same?
A: No. U.S. coastal communities are threatened by tsunamis that are generated by both local earthquakes and distant earthquakes. Local tsunamis give residents only a few minutes to seek safety. Tsunamis of distant origins give residents more time to evacuate threatened coastal areas but increase the need for timely and accurate assessment of the tsunami hazard to avoid costly false alarms. Thus, U.S. residents in Alaska can experience a local earthquake and tsunami while residents of Hawaii and the west coast may experience this disaster as a distant tsunami. Similarly, west coast residents can experience a local tsunami that may also have an impact on the distant states of Alaska and Hawaii. Of the two, local tsunamis are more devastating.
Q: Can Tsunamis Be Predicted?
A: Since science cannot predict when earthquakes will occur, they cannot determine exactly when a tsunami will be generated. But with the aid of historical records of tsunamis and numerical models, scientists can get an idea where tsunamis are most likely to be generated.
Tsunami Safety Tips
- A strong earthquake felt in a low-lying coastal area is a natural warning of possible, immediate danger. Keep calm and quickly move to higher ground away from the coast.
- All large earthquakes do not cause tsunamis, but many do. If the quake is located near or directly under the ocean, the probability of a tsunami increases. When you hear that an earthquake has occurred in the ocean or coastline regions, prepare for a tsunami emergency.
- Tsunamis can occur at any time, day or night. They can travel up rivers and streams that lead to the ocean.
- A tsunami is not a single wave, but a series of waves. Stay out of danger until an "ALL CLEAR" is issued by a competent authority. Approaching tsunamis are sometimes heralded by noticeable rise or fall of coastal waters. This is nature's tsunami warning and should be heeded.
- Approaching large tsunamis are usually accompanied by a loud roar that sounds like a train or aircraft. If a tsunami arrives at night when you can not see the ocean, this is also nature's tsunami warning and should be heeded.
- A small tsunami at one beach can be a giant a few miles away. Do not let modest size of one make you lose respect for all.
- Sooner or later, tsunamis visit every coastline in the Pacific. All tsunamis - like hurricanes - are potentially dangerous even though they may not damage every coastline they strike.
- Never go down to the beach to watch for a tsunami! WHEN YOU CAN SEE THE WAVE YOU ARE TOO CLOSE TO ESCAPE. Tsunamis can move faster than a person can run!
- During a tsunami emergency, your local emergency management office, police, fire and other emergency organizations will try to save your life. Give them your fullest cooperation.
- Homes and other buildings located in low lying coastal areas are not safe. Do NOT stay in such buildings if there is a tsunami warning.
- The upper floors of high, multi-story, reinforced concrete hotels can provide refuge if there is no time to quickly move inland or to higher ground.
- If you are on a boat or ship and there is time, move your vessel to deeper water (at least 100 fathoms). If it is the case that there is concurrent severe weather, it may may safer to leave the boat at the pier and physically move to higher ground.
- Damaging wave activity and unpredictable currents can effect harbor conditions for a period of time after the tsunami's initial impact. Be sure conditions are safe before you return your boat or ship to the harbor.
- Stay tuned to your local radio, marine radio, NOAA Weather Radio, or television stations during a tsunami emergency - bulletins issued through your local emergency management office and National Weather Service offices can save your life.
Did You Know?
- In 1964, an Alaskan earthquake generated a tsunami with waves between 10 and 20 feet high along parts of the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts. This tsunami caused more than $84 million in damage in Alaska and a total of 123 fatalities.
- Although tsunamis are rare along the Atlantic coastline, a severe earthquake on November 18, 1929, in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland generated a tsunami that caused considerable damage and loss of life at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.
- In 1946, a tsunami with waves of 20 to 32 feet crashed into Hilo, Hawaii, flooding the downtown area and killing 159 people.
- The Tsunami Warning Centers in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Palmer, Alaska, monitor disturbances that trigger tsunamis. When a tsunami is recorded, it is tracked and a tsunami warning is issued to the threatened area.
- Most deaths during a tsunami are a result of drowning. Associated risks include flooding, polluted water supplies, and damaged gas lines.
- Since 1945, more people have been killed as a result of tsunamis than as a direct result of an earthquake’s ground-shaking.
Source: http://www.noaa.gov (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site) contributed to this report.