Tsunami Aid Running Into Obstacles

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The main airport at Indonesia's tsunami-battered Sumatra island was closed for much of the day Tuesday after a relief plane hit a herd of cows, hampering the world's still-fragile efforts to get aid to victims of the disaster.

In a startling tale of survival, an Indonesian man swept off the shore by last week's tsunami was found afloat on tree branches and debris, the second person to be found alive on the high seas days after the disaster, officials said Tuesday.

World leaders, meanwhile, headed to southern Asia to get a firsthand glimpse of the damage from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 139,488 people. Secretary of State Colin Powell — who was in Thailand on Tuesday — pledged America's full support, and a donor conference was scheduled Thursday in Indonesia's capital.

Relief workers said they expect the death toll to soar by tens of thousands because surveys of the western coast of Sumatra, which was closest to the quake, show it was hit much harder than previously thought. Scores of villages were flattened, and in some areas few survivors have been seen.

Powell said about 4,000-5,000 Americans remain unaccounted for in the disaster. At least 15 are confirmed dead.

Rushing aid to anyone still alive has proved difficult, with roads and sea jetties washed away.

"We have a logistical nightmare," U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland told NBC's "Today" show.

"I would say that tens of thousands of people have received no relief," he said, adding that the outpouring of aid has "been just phenomenal."

Planes were temporarily grounded Tuesday by the closure of the small airport in Banda Aceh, the main city on the island's northern tip. The flying was left to helicopters, mainly based on U.S. Navy vessels anchored offshore, to drop food parcels.

No one was hurt when a Boeing 737 relief cargo plane hit cows after it landed at the airport, but the closure of the runway highlighted the vulnerability of the relief effort as waves of aid began pouring into Sumatra, where an estimated 100,000 people died.

Workers dragged the cargo plane off the runway later in the day, allowing the resumption of aid flights. The airport had been swamped with round-the-clock traffic, with dozens of aircraft hauling in water, biscuits and medicine.

Over Sumatra, helicopter pilot Lt. Ruben Ramos of San Juan, Puerto Rico, found a village at the end of an inlet, ringed by cliffs, that had been spared the brunt of the tsunami, although its nearby rice fields had been obliterated.

In contrast to some areas where mobs have stormed helicopters to snatch food, scores of villagers there, many of them young boys, bounded out of the forest and formed an orderly line, waiting patiently for the aid. Almost all ran toward a reporter to thrust out their hands and press them to their hearts in a gesture of thanks.

American pilots, meanwhile, were ferrying survivors to medical help in Banda Aceh, an operation that created yet another bottleneck: overcrowded hospitals.

About a dozen people were lying on stretchers Tuesday on the sidewalk outside the Fakina Hospital. Inside, many rooms have no power, blood is splattered on walls and intravenous fluid bags being used to rehydrate survivors dangle from cords strung across the ceiling.

Still, some patients said they were better off in the hospital than in their shattered villages.

"I thought this is the end, I'm going to die," said Away Ludin, a 60-year-old farmer who was airlifted out of a village on Sumatra and was at the hospital. "I was so shocked and surprised to see these white people coming into the village. I'm so glad they were there."

Despite the awesome power of the waves, some victims still managed to survive after more than a week with little or no food or shelter.

Tsunami survivor Rizal Sapura, 23, was plucked out of the ocean by a Malaysian cargo ship from the Indian Ocean on Monday evening, about 100 miles from the shores of Aceh province, said Adrian Arukiasamy, a spokesman for shipping company K-Line Maritime Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.

The crew of a container vessel that was returning to Malaysia from South Africa had spotted him clinging to the branches of a floating tree, Arukiasamy said.

"It was certainly a miraculous survival," he said.

Rizal, who subsisted mainly on rainwater, was weak and in shock, Arukiasamy said. He would be rushed for medical treatment when the ship arrived in Malaysia's western harbor early Wednesday.

Leaders from stricken nations and world donors, meanwhile, geared up to meet in Indonesia on Thursday to iron out problems in coordinating an unprecedented $2 billion global relief operation. They will also discuss an ambitious plan to set up an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system.

Asian leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — whose nation's $500 million pledge makes it the biggest single country contributor so far — are to attend the summit, along with Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and top European Union officials.

"The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need," Powell told leaders in Thailand following earlier criticism that Washington had been slow to respond to the disaster.

Egeland reiterated concerns that the focus on tsunami aid would siphon off funds for other crisis areas around the world, such as Africa.

"Here is my criticism to the rich world: Could we wake up please to those 20 forgotten emergencies as we have woken up so generously to this enormous tsunami that has hit 5 million people and killed more than 150,000?" he said Monday.

"I appeal to the rich world — and the rich world, I identify as 30 to 40 nations — the rich world should be able to pick up the bill for feeding all the children in the world. It is one day's worth of military spending."

UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy told The Associated Press that assistance for children around southern Asia was "actually not bad ... but we know it's not getting everywhere."

Japan also was preparing to send soldiers and aircraft to the disaster zone, and a 20-member military team left Tuesday to study the needs in the region. Defense chief Yoshinori Ono sent an order to land, sea and air forces Tuesday to ready medical care and other aid.

In India, the government halted the evacuation of island survivors whose homes were smashed by the killer waves, focusing instead on bringing relief directly to victims as demanded by aid groups.

The government, however, did not change its policy of barring international aid groups from the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, citing concerns for indigenous tribes living there and security at a military air base.

For the past week, more than 12,000 villagers were ferried from the archipelago to Port Blair, capital of the federally administered territory, to refugee camps. Others were sent to the mainland to seek work or stay with relatives until their homes were rebuilt as promised under an ambitious government program.

"There has been a change in strategy. Aid will be taken to their homes," a relief official said on condition of anonymity.

The large-scale transfers of survivors to Port Blair — where access is not restricted — and to the mainland had been criticized by aid organizations, who say India's relief program is in disarray.

Saroj Das, regional manager of southern India for the British group ActionAid International, urged the government to reconsider the ban, given the size of the disaster.

"The whole world wants to respond to this crisis. Andaman and Nicobar should not be isolated from this relief effort," he said.

In Thailand, workers failed for a second day to catch a humpback dolphin and her calf who were trapped in a small lagoon with no fish to feed on. The workers sang, clapped and banged their boats with paddles to try to herd them into nets so they could be moved to the open water, but the older one apparently slipped through a hole.

It was unclear how much longer the dolphins could survive in the stagnating mixture of salt water and fresh water that likely was dehydrating them. About 500-600 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins are believed to inhabit the seas around Thailand.