Relief: Massive Effort, Massive Need ; Global Pledges of Aid Pass $2 Billion, but Supply Snags Keep Many Survivors Waiting

Article excerpt

A week after a massive earthquake and tsunami swept from Indonesia through the Indian Ocean, relief officials are frustrated by the logistical problems that have prevented crucial supplies from arriving quickly to those who needed it most, but they are awed by the amount of money pledged to help the survivors - over $2 billion by 40 nations so far.

In Indonesia's ravaged Aceh province, many residents continue to wait for large-scale international relief to arrive at their towns and villages. Across Southeast Asia, the death toll reached 140,000, with 1.8 million needing food aid, according to the UN.

With the scale of this natural disaster, the efforts are not where relief workers might like them to be, but rather where - or even ahead of - they expect them to be. For example, 20 years ago, according to several experts, it would have taken a minimum of three weeks to get into remote, wrecked regions like the Indonesian province of Aceh. And some liken the size of the operation to the US build-up prior to the invasion of Iraq, which wasn't measured merely in days.

"The search and rescue phase of a relief effort always takes a few days," says Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "Then you enter the second phase, keeping people alive and figuring out what they need to survive."

Even as the relief effort in 12 countries affected transitions into that second phase, a third key phase looms down the road: the much longer-term effort to relocate, rebuild, and rehabilitate livelihoods. That can take decades, as the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, illustrates.

Each of these three typical phases is vital to effective relief efforts.

Now, though, aid workers are heartened that key steps of the second phase are moving forward, as workers begin to supply the crucial water, food, shelter, and medical supplies for survivors, especially in the Indonesian province of Aceh, near the epicenter of the earthquake, and Sri Lanka.

Over the weekend, more than 20 US Navy ships arrived in ports across the battered areas of Southeast Asia. American Seahawk helicopters ferried temporary shelters from the ships to the villages near the earthquake's epicenter.

In addition, the United Nations' World Food Program delivered, via two US C-130 cargo planes, 10 tons of rice, high-energy biscuits, and noodles to the same distressed area. And the WFP has delivered 1,171 tons of rice, lentils, and sugar - enough to feed 170,000 people - to the worst-hit areas of Sri Lanka. Students with towering backpacks and workers in slacks and collared shirts arrived in Aceh and Medan to help in the relief - some just coming to help, but others being spurred by the loss of family and friends in the area.

"I'm going to stay one month or two, depending on what they need in Aceh," says Eri Yanto Hasyem, an engineer from Jakarta who flew to Aceh to volunteer after hearing about the disaster and worrying about family living there.

"I slept only one hour Sunday night after it happened, one hour Monday, and maybe three hours on Tuesday," he says. "I sent an [instant message] to my nephew to see about the situation there and got one back that only said, 'Your third sister is lost, your seventh sister is also lost.' "

Relief workers and experts caution that the bottlenecks that have developed because of damaged airports, ports, and roads haven't yet abated.

UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland told reporters on Saturday that although shortages in some supplies remain, the focus needs to be placed on rebuilding the infrastructure so the aid can be delivered.

"We need to make small, damaged airstrips some of the busiest airports in the world," he said.

In addition, he asked for more helicopters, cargo planes, ships, and trucks to ferry the supplies, as well as air-traffic control units, construction of base camps for aid workers, generators, fuel storage units, water-treatment units, and medical supplies. …