UN Says Cost of Tsunami Disaster Without Precedent

The U.N. emergency relief agency is struggling to respond to a natural disaster that has brought death and destruction to at least eight countries. Senior officials estimate this could be the costliest disaster in history.

As he briefed reporters Monday, an obviously worried U.N. Undersecretary General Jan Egeland said it is far too early to determine the scope of the devastation.

"The figures we have now are so wrong that in many ways it may be wrong to really present them," Mr. Egeland says.

Earthquake magnitude in Sumatra, Indonesia
Mr. Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said death and damage tolls are rising by the hour. He expressed concern that in some of the hardest hit areas, particularly in Indonesia, he has still not even heard from U.N. staff.

"There are many communities in Indonesia, which are closest to the epicenter, and therefore the tsunami would be at its biggest, where we haven't even a clue of how many have been affected," Mr. Egeland says. "These are some of the smaller communities in Sumatra. Certainly Bandar Aceh is a very grave concern, and it is not good that I cannot communicate with our people there, of which we have many local staff, not even with satellite phone, which could be an indication that something very bad has happened."

Mr. Egeland said, although the killer wave that hit the south Asian coastline was not the biggest in recorded history, it may have been the most destructive, because several hard-hit countries are among the world's most heavily populated.

He said the eight worst-hit countries, in order of magnitude, were Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Maldives, Malaysia, Burma and Bangladesh.

A massive appeal for aid is to be launched in the next few days. Mr. Egeland expressed concern, however, that several rich donor countries are becoming less generous, even as needs continue to grow.

"We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries. It is beyond me why we are so stingy," Mr. Egeland says. "Actually foreign assistance for many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of gross national income, that is stingy."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Monday said the United States would give an initial 15 million dollars in relief assistance. In addition, several disaster assessment teams are being sent to determine what else can be done to help victims.

U.N. disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland said among the happiest developments following the quake and tidal wave has been the response capacity of local relief agencies. He said in places such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and Thailand, local and national authorities have displayed a "remarkable resilience". He added that, while the international response has been overvalued, the local response has been undervalued.

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