BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Haggard and dehydrated survivors of Asia's tsunami catastrophe flooded hospitals in the disaster zone yesterday, posing a new challenge for the global relief operation.
A 5.8-magnitude quake, the latest of numerous aftershocks stemming from the monstrous temblor that spawned the tsunamis, rattled India's Andaman Islands early today. There were no immediate reports of further injury or damage in the region, which was hard hit by the killer waves.
As Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other U.S. officials toured the region, the fragility of the aid network was exposed when a cargo plane hit a herd of cows on an Indonesian runway, temporarily shutting down an airport vital to the effort to feed and clothe the homeless.
Survivors of the Dec. 26 disaster that killed an estimated 150,000 people and left 5 million in need faced a newly emerging aid bottleneck as a growing fleet of helicopters picked up the injured and sick from ravaged villages and ferried them to crowded and undersupplied hospitals in the cities.
About a dozen people lay on stretchers on the sidewalk outside Fakina Hospital in Banda Aceh, provincial capital of Indonesia's hard-hit island of Sumatra. Many of the hospital's rooms had no power, walls were speckled with blood, and doctors had run out of stands for intravenous fluid bags, hanging them instead from cords strung across the ceiling.
"It's heartbreaking," said Leslie Ansag of Everett, Wash., a Navy medic from the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier dispatched to Sumatra to help the rescue and recovery effort.
The focus on aid needs intensified as world leaders headed to southern Asia to get a close look at the damage and work out a relief plan at a donor conference tomorrow in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.
Powell, who visited Thailand and Indonesia yesterday, pledged America's full support. The United States "will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need," he said.
He said the outpouring of American aid and humanitarian help - the government has pledged $350 million and citizens are donating tens of millions more - could help Muslims see the United States in a better light.
"What it does in the Muslim world, the rest of the world, is giving an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action," said Powell, who was accompanied by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.
Underscoring the diplomatic sensitivity facing the United States in this region of the world, some Indonesians said yesterday that they remained skeptical of U.S. motives.
"It's true we need help from the U.S. right now, but many Muslims feel the need to ask: 'Is there any political interest here, or is it really just humanitarian help?'" said Moeslim Abdurrahman, a moderate Muslim leader in Jakarta.
But others expressed appreciation for the vast American resources being deployed.
"The majority of Indonesians are quite appreciative, especially the Acehnese. Everyone is just amazed at the capacity of the U.S. with the Abraham Lincoln coming in here and all these Seahawk helicopters," said Rizal Sukma, director of studies at Indonesia's Center for International and Strategic Studies whose teenage niece is missing after the disaster.
"A lot of people think that the U.S. will not pay attention to anything unless it has to do with terrorism, that it doesn't care about democracy or human rights anymore," Sukma said. "This will insert a new element into people's perceptions."
Japan, which has pledged $500 million to relief efforts and is preparing to dispatch soldiers and aircraft to the disaster zone, sent a 20-member military team yesterday to study the region's needs.
The main airport in Banda Aceh was closed for most of the day after a Boeing 737 relief plane hit cows that had wandered onto the runway. The closure stopped planes from using the airfield until the 737 could be dragged away, although helicopters kept flying in and out. There was no word on how many aid flights were delayed.
Tomorrow's aid conference in Jakarta and a subsequent disaster meeting in Kobe, Japan, are to focus on southern Asia's need for a sensor system to issue early tsunami warnings.
Experts say such a system would have cut casualties substantially, and the Thai government removed the head of its meteorological department, Suparerk Thantiratanawong, yesterday for failing to warn the nation of the impending disaster. More than 5,000 people were killed when waves slammed into Thai coastal communities.
"If he warned, the death toll would definitely have been minimized," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters.
Suparerk was assigned to work for six months to help develop a warning system similar to one the Japanese government uses to issue tsunami alerts within minutes of underwater earthquakes. Thai officials said they hoped for technical aid from Washington.
Despite the bottlenecks at hospitals, helicopters from the U.S. military and other nations continued to fly into devastated areas of Sumatra.
Pilot Lt. Ruben Ramos of San Juan, Puerto Rico, found a village where dozens of villagers bounded out of the forest and lined up, waiting patiently for aid packages. Almost all ran forward, thrusting out their hands and then pressing them to their hearts in a gesture of thanks.
Despite the awesome power of the waves, survivors continued to turn up - even at sea.
Rizal Sapura, 23, was rescued by a Malaysian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean about 100 miles off Aceh province, said Adrian Arukiasamy, a spokesman for shipping company K-Line Maritime Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.
Crew members on the container ship returning to Malaysia from South Africa spotted him Monday evening clinging to the branches of a floating tree, Arukiasamy said.
"It was certainly a miraculous survival," he said.
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