GENEVA – Deaths in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster could top 100,000 when figures for India’s Bay of Bengal islands are known, a senior international Red Cross official says.
“I would not be at all surprised that we will be on 100,000 (deaths) when we know what has happened on the Andaman and Nicobar islands,” Peter Rees of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Wednesday.
He told a news conference Federation estimates were presently at 77,828 dead across the region, including in Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya and the Seychelles thousands of miles from the epicentre of the earthquake off Indonesia last Sunday.
David Nabarro, who heads the World Health Organisation’s health crisis team, said up to five million people lacked the basic essentials to survive.
The ocean surge was triggered by a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake, the biggest in 40 years, off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It spread in an arc of death across the Indian Ocean, striking from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and beyond to Africa.
U.S. scientists said the quake that set off the wall of water had moved tectonic plates beneath the Indian Ocean by up to 30 metres (98 ft), causing the Earth to wobble on its axis and permanently shortening the day by a fraction of a second.
Survivors told harrowing tales of the moment the tsunami, up to 10 metres (33 feet) high, struck towns and resorts, sucking holidaymakers into the sea, surging through buildings, sweeping cars from roads and smashing a train off its rails.
“The water was just too strong,” said Surya Darmar, lying on an army cot outside the emergency ward of a military hospital in Banda Aceh on Wednesday, covered in cuts and with a broken leg.
“I held my children for as long as I could, but they were swept away.”
UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said children could account for up to a third of the dead.
Indonesia has suffered the biggest number of victims, with 36,268 known to be dead, although the toll could rise to 80,000 in Aceh alone, the province closest to the quake’s epicentre.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke of “frightening reports” from outlying parts of Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra.
Troops and rescue crews reached the town of Meulaboh on Aceh’s west coast, about 150 km (90 miles) from the epicentre, to find dead bodies and rubble.
“Today so far 3,400 bodies have been found in Meulaboh. Eighty percent of the buildings are wrecked,” Chief Security Minister Widodo Adi Sutjipto told reporters.
But a senior UN official in Indonesia said the toll in Meulaboh could reach 40,000.
Soldiers and volunteers were collecting scattered corpses for mass burial.
The stench of decomposing bodies spread over the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, where as much as five percent of the 300,000 population is believed dead, as shocked survivors wandered among the rubble in search of lost family.
“I have given up searching for their bodies,” said Rohani Amad, 40, wiping her eyes with a black Muslim headscarf, days after two sisters and her 16-year-old daughter disappeared. “I have lost my house. I just don’t know what to do,” she sobbed.
With towns devastated and communications disrupted, the survivors face a struggle for food and fresh water.
Nabarro, of the World Health Organisation, spoke of desperate need for millions left homeless.
“Perhaps as many as five million people are not able to access what they need for living. Either they cannot get water, or their sanitation is inadequate or they cannot get food,” he said.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he would propose a debt moratorium for Indonesia and Somalia among Paris Club members.
The relief operation struggled to get going as health experts said disease could kill as many people as the waves.
Buddhist monks handed out rice and curry to survivors in Sri Lanka and aircraft dropped food to isolated Indonesian towns.
The World Food Programme was trucking food to parts of Sri Lanka while the Red Cross sent sanitation teams to villages in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, estimated the cost of the devastation at more than $13 billion (7.07 billion pounds).
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the international community may have to give billions of dollars in aid. Washington more than doubled its pledge to $35 million and ordered 12 vessels, including the carrier Abraham Lincoln, to the region.
Australia increased its aid to $27 million and said it, the United States, Japan and India were considering setting up a group to coordinate help.
In Sri Lanka, where the death toll topped 22,400, Tamil Tiger rebels appealed for help as they dug mass graves to bury thousands of bodies. All 135 children at an orphanage run by women rebels were killed.
Rescue teams headed out to the last of India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar islands that have been cut off since Sunday. People on some of the isles have been surviving on coconuts and experts warned some of their indigenous tribes faced extinction.
India’s confirmed overall toll of nearly 7,000 is likely to rise sharply. Many of the dead are on the islands, which are closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland. On one, the surge of water killed two-thirds of the population.
“One in every five inhabitants in the entire Nicobar group of islands is either dead, injured or missing,” a police official said. Dozens of aftershocks above magnitude 5.0 have rocked the islands.
In parts of India’s Tamil Nadu state officials gave up trying to count the dead and were counting survivors instead, while burying bodies as quickly as possible in mass graves.
In Thailand, where thousands of tourists had been enjoying a peak-season Christmas break away from the northern winter, many west-coast resorts were turned into graveyards.
The official toll in Thailand is 1,600, but 3,500 foreigners are unaccounted for, including more than 2,000 Scandinavians.
More than 1,800 bodies have been recovered from Khao Lak beach, north of Phuket island, and more than 3,000 people may have died there alone, police said. More than 300 dead had been found on Phi Phi island, made famous in the film “The Beach”.
Bloated and decaying bodies continued to wash ashore on the island as hopes of finding survivors amid the rubble of hotels and shops faded slowly.
“It’s hard to tell which bodies are foreign because they are just unrecognisable,” said French rescue volunteer Serge Barros.
Hundreds of people were killed in the Maldives, Myanmar and Malaysia. The arc of water struck as far away as Somalia and Kenya.
Schroeder said up to 1,000 Germans were feared dead in the disaster.
The region has seen huge killer waves before, including one when Krakatoa erupted off southern Sumatra in 1883, but Indian Ocean countries have no tsunami warning system.