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Asian Disaster Relief Efforts Encounter Unparalleled Logistical Difficulties


As the death toll continues to climb in the wake of Sunday's earthquake-triggered tsunami, the world is witnessing the biggest-ever mobilization of international aid for a natural disaster. But relief workers are warning that the geographic scope of the tragedy is so immense that there is no way to guarantee that life-saving food, fresh water and medicine will reach everyone in need.

So far, the response, like the event that triggered it, is unparalleled in modern history. Already, aid workers report, the flow of material goods to some airports in the disaster zone greatly exceeds storage and distribution capacity.

Such is the case in Medan Indonesia, some 300 kilometers southeast of the devastated town of Banda Aceh. Speaking with VOA by cell phone from Medan, Oxfam coordinator Mona Laczo says a planned aid shipment to the city has had to be diverted.

"Things change so fast," she said. "Our plane that left the U.K. [Britain] on Wednesday - now, we are being told that, because so much aid has poured in, the Medan airport can no longer facilitate the arrival. So, our plane is actually going to end up somewhere else, and we have to go back to square-one [start planning from scratch once again]. These are the kinds of challenges we face here."

Ms. Laczo says, aside from food and fresh water, Oxfam plans to distribute mosquito nets to protect tsunami-ravaged communities from mosquito-born diseases, such as dengue fever and malaria.

Bottlenecks in aid distribution are but one facet of the monumental logistical challenge of reaching survivors across a wide swath of Asian coastline, with many islands and villages virtually inaccessible.

"It goes past anything we have any experience dealing with," said Gail Neudorf, who helps direct emergency response teams for the aid organization CARE. She spoke with VOA from the group's offices in Atlanta, Georgia.

"One of the biggest issues is access and getting to people," she said. "With the destruction that has gone on, many roads are washed out, airstrips are washed out."

Ms. Neudorf says no one wants to contemplate the possibility of aid and supplies failing to reach any affected area in time to prevent further loss of life. But, she says, in a tragedy of this magnitude, affecting so many disparate and remote localities over such a wide and varied region, that possibility is all too real.

"It is not guaranteed that we will be able to reach everyone, just because of the sheer size and scope of this," she said. "You reach those that you can right away, but we have to keep in mind that we have to keep expanding that network. It is going to be extremely difficult to keep moving that focus out, because you become overwhelmed with what you see right in front of you."

Oxfam relief worker Mona Laczo shares the concern.

"It is likely that some communities will be reached later, and we are very concerned about that," she said. "Therefore, we think that coordination [among relief groups] is very much a key [for effectiveness]. If we coordinate, if the U.N. and other agencies coordinate, and if the governments coordinate, then, hopefully, we can reach communities that might be isolated and help them."

At a news conference in New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the world body will be "stretched" to meet the needs of tsunami survivors. But, he added, the global community has no choice but to do its utmost in every way possible.

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