Rains, Aftershocks Hamper Tsunami Cleanup

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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Pounding rain drenched the wrecked city of Banda Aceh on Saturday, adding to the misery of homeless earthquake and tsunami survivors and heightening fears of waterborne diseases. Flash floods in Sri Lanka forced evacuations and thwarted aid deliveries.

Worldwide donations to aid those battered by the huge waves that slammed Asian and African nations topped $1 billion, with Japan pledging up to $500 million on Saturday, making the country the largest single donor to victims of the catastrophe.

A steady stream of foreign military aircraft also touched down in the epicenter of the disaster, the Aceh province on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

But supplies were bottlenecking and officials acknowledged distribution networks were not in place to deliver desperately needed supplies to the worst-hit areas.

“The scale of the disaster is just too big,” said Andi Mallarengen, spokesman for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. “We can bring in the aid, food, but we need manpower to distribute them.”

Six days after the earthquake and tsunamis, the confirmed death toll passed 123,000. U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland estimated the number of dead was approaching 150,000.

Meanwhile, as the New Year rolled in, somber events and grieving replaced celebration in many countries.

U.S. President George W. Bush, his administration stung by criticism that its aid pledges were small and slow to materialize, raised the U.S. promise of help from $35 million to $350 million.

“Our contributions will continue to be revised as the full effects of this terrible tragedy become clearer,” he said. Britain has pledged $95 million, Sweden $75 million and Spain $68 million.

On Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a statement, said Japan would extend the $500 million grant aid to affected countries and international organizations.

Koizumi said he would attend an aid conference next week in Jakarta, Indonesia, to "express Japan's determination to extend the maximum possible assistance commensurate with its responsibilities as a fellow Asia partner."

Japan has sent dozens of firefighters, doctors, and other relief workers to affected areas. It also has dispatched two naval destroyers and a supply ship to waters off Thailand to help with the recovery effort.

Flash floods in eastern Sri Lanka on Saturday forced the evacuation of 2,000 people from low-lying areas already affected by the tsunami, officials said.

Police officer Neville Wijesinghe said several roads leading to the eastern town of Ampara, one of the worst hit by the tsunami, were blocked by flood waters, preventing aid trucks from getting through.

Aftershocks rattled the region, including a 6.5-magnitude quake 215 miles west of Banda Aceh on Saturday, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Smaller aftershocks hit northern Sumatra and the Nicobar and Andaman islands, remote Indian territory just north of Sumatra. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the aftershocks were too small to trigger tsunamis.

A U.S. aircraft carrier battle group arrived off the shores of Sumatra and began launching helicopters loaded with supplies.

Two Seahawk helicopters off the USS Abraham Lincoln landed in Banda Aceh early Saturday to begin delivering relief supplies and materials for temporary shelters.

A flotilla carrying Marines and water purifying equipment was bearing down on Sri Lanka, meanwhile, and a former staging base for B-52 bombers in Thailand roared with the take-offs and landings of giant cargo planes.

Saturday’s rainstorm in Banda Aceh was the first since last Sunday’s disaster. Health workers have warned that heavy rain could spread diseases like cholera and diarrhea. Thousands of uncollected corpses remain in and around the city.

At one refugee camp on the grounds of the airport, hundreds of people spent a damp night under plastic sheets. Mothers nursed babies while others tried to light a fire with damp matches.

“With no help we will die,” said Indra Syaputra. “We came here because we heard that we could get food, but it was nonsense. All I got was some packets of noodles.”

Officials and volunteers in the Andamans struggled to deliver tons of rations, clothes, bedsheets, oil, and other items, hampered by lack of transportation.

“There is starvation. People haven’t had food or water for at least five days. There are carcasses. There will be an epidemic,” said Andaman’s member of parliament, Manoranjan Bhakta.

Indonesia reported 80,000 deaths; Sri Lanka 28,700, India just shy of 9,000. Thailand’s toll stood at 4,800, just over half of those foreign tourists, but 6,500 people were missing and presumed dead.

Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra said Saturday that his country would investigate why no warnings were issued ahead of the tsunamis.

Aid continued to arrive. But bureaucratic delays, fuel shortages and impassable roads blocked many of the supplies. In an airport hangar in Medan, south of Banda Aceh, thousands of boxes of basics had accumulated since Monday and were going nowhere.

“Hundreds of tons, it keeps coming in,” said Rizal Nordin, governor of Northern Sumatra province. He blamed the backlog on an initial “lack of coordination” that was slowly improving.

In the hardest-hit country, Indonesia, the official death toll stood at more than 80,000, but officials said it could reach 100,000.

“We mourn, we cry and our hearts weep to witness thousands of victims sprawled everywhere,” said Yudhoyono, the president. “We witness those survivors still living in desperation and sinking into sadness and confusion.”