|A person stands next to a tsunami-damaged house in downtown Galle, Sri Lanka|
The United States is preparing to launch a $656 million, long-term reconstruction aid program for countries hardest hit by the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster six months ago. It includes nearly $17 million to begin development of a tsunami early warning system for the region.
Six months after the tsunami disaster, the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, has received final budgetary approval to begin spending for tsunami reconstruction projects.
The massive $82 billion foreign operations supplemental spending bill approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in May was largely for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But over $900 million was earmarked for tsunami relief and reconstruction.
Officials here say that after the Pentagon is reimbursed for military relief and rescue activities immediately after the December 26 disaster, $656 million remains for long-term reconstruction projects mainly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
At a news conference, USAID Director Andrew Natsios said the agency will be financing a number of large and small-scale projects aimed at restoring the infrastructure and local economies in the hardest-hit areas.
Mr. Natsios said the cornerstone projects will be the rebuilding of the 240 kilometer coastal road linking the devastated Indonesian city of Banda Aceh with the rest of Sumatra, and the replacement of a bridge spanning the mouth of Sri Lanka's Arugam Bay to facilitate the rehabilitation of four coastal towns.
The package will fund smaller scale infrastructure projects in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, including lending to help revive fishing, tourism and other local businesses.
Mr. Natsios said it also includes nearly $17 million to help develop a regional tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean, similar to the network of instrument-laden buoys the United States has placed in the eastern Pacific to detect tsunamis that could menace Hawaii and the U.S. west coast.
"There was no way of predicting a tsunami was going to take place, given the current state of instruments in the Indian Ocean," he said. "The idea would be to put some buoys in place that are designed specifically to take data from the ocean and then transfer it into an alarm system in communities, so people can start evacuating if the earthquake looks like it is going start a tsunami."
Mr. Natsios said the envisaged system would also improve early-warning capabilities for damaging typhoons, which he said occur much more frequently than tsunamis in the Indian Ocean region.
He said a warning system the United States helped develop for Bangladesh prompted coastal evacuations that may have saved hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of lives in a disastrous typhoon that swept across the Bay of Bengal into Bangladesh in 1991.
Aid agency officials said the tsunami aid being provided by the U.S. government, $901 million, has been far exceeded by the contributions of private Americans and corporations, which to date total more than $1.3 billion.