US Pledges Aid After Thousands Killed by Earthquake-Generated Tidal Waves

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - President Bush has pledged emergency relief to the victims of disastrous tidal waves that took thousands of lives across South and South-East Asia, triggered by what geologists said was the most powerful earthquake in the past 40 years.

Aid agencies launched emergency appeals, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Indonesia announced that medical supplies, tents, helicopters for emergency evacuation and portable sanitation facilities were urgently needed.

The undersea earthquake, measured by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at 9.0 on the Richter scale, occurred just before 7 a.m. Sunday local time off the coast of Indonesia's western Sumatra island, at a depth of about six miles.

A series of tsunamis then spread across the Bay of Bengal, wreaking havoc in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. Malaysia, Bangladesh, Burma and the Maldive islands southwest of India were also affected to various degrees, and reports of casualties came from as far away as Somalia, 3,500 miles to the west.

By Monday, the death toll as reported by government agencies had climbed past 14,000, including more than 4,000 in Indonesia and almost 5,000 each in Sri Lanka and India. Hundreds died in Thailand, where coastal tourist resorts were hardest hit.

The casualty figure was expected to climb as more reports came in, especially from outlying areas where communication is poor or has been cut off.

In India, some fishing villages were completely submerged, Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil told reporters. Sea water hit a nuclear power station near Chennai, but Indian authorities said it had been safely shut down.

One of the worst-hit areas appeared to be Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province and the location of a long-running separatist insurgency. Some 3,000 people were killed in the area of Banda Aceh, the province's capital, according to the Indonesian health ministry's emergency center.

Officials in Sri Lanka said it was the country's worst disaster ever. A million people were displaced after tidal waves wrecked their coastal villages.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy said the president expressed his condolences on behalf of the American people for the terrible loss of life and suffering caused by the disasters.

In a statement issued as Bush traveled from Washington to Texas, Duffy said the U.S. stood ready to offer assistance to the affected countries, and that relief was already flowing to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

"We will work with the affected governments, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and other concerned states and organizations to support the relief and response to this terrible tragedy," he said.

A State Department spokesman, Noel Clay, was quoted as saying the U.S. was "prepared to be very responsive."

Pope John Paul II urged the international community to rush relief aid to the region.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an immediate $6.7 million appeal aimed at helping half a million people and supporting local society relief efforts in the countries affected.

Red Cross teams in Sri Lanka and India helped evacuate survivors, dispense first aid and provide emergency relief materials and food, the federation said.

The IFRC senior health officer in Geneva -- Hakan Sandbladh -- said the biggest health challenge now was the spread of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea and malaria. Reports of the destruction of hospitals and health infrastructure in Sri Lanka were of particular concern.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan voiced his condolences and said disaster assessment and coordination teams were being dispatched to work with the affected countries' governments to provide rescue and relief assistance.

Australia, China, Russia, Israel and European countries were among those preparing Monday to send aircraft, aid and humanitarian personnel to the stricken area.

"We'll do everything we can as a regional neighbor and regional friend to assist the countries that have been so very badly affected," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said at a press conference called to express the country's sympathy and announce emergency aid efforts.

According to the USGS, the earthquake was the fourth most powerful since 1900 and the biggest since 1964, when a 9.2 quake hit Prince William Sound in Alaska on Good Friday. That earthquake, the largest ever in Alaska, costs 125 lives -- 15 in the earthquake and 110 in resulting tsunamis.

Rounding off the big five since the start of the 20th century were earthquakes in Chile in 1960 (9.5), the Andreanof Islands of Alaska in 1957 (9.1) and the Kamchatka peninsula in the far east of what was the Soviet Union in 1952 (9.0).

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, comprises more than 18,000 islands strung out across five time zones. It is highly prone to earthquakes, lying on what is known as the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a series of seismic fault lines and volcanoes.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow