A combined U.S. civilian and military aid effort in the tsunami-ravaged region of Asia moved into high gear Monday. Helicopters from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln delivered, and in some cases air dropped, supplies in remote parts of Indonesia's Aceh province.
It took U.S. Navy vessels several days to reach the affected area. But a five-ship task force led by the carrier Abraham Lincoln is now in position off the battered western coastline of Sumatra, which sustained perhaps the worst damage of all from the December 26 earthquake and tsunami.
At a news briefing U.S. Marine Brigadier General John Allen, Asia-Pacific director of the Pentagon's International Security Affairs Bureau, said helicopters from the task force are delivering supplies to remote parts of Aceh province that had not been reached by aid workers thus far.
He described scenes of desperation in the impromptu landing and drop zones, and said a challenge for Navy crewmen has been to avoid injuring civilians who had gone without help for an entire week.
"In some of these areas, there have been days with no contact and no relief," said General Allen. "So there will sometimes appear to be desperation as these helicopters are heard, as they're approaching the L-Z's, the landing zones, and as they're trying to get into the landing zones. And we recognize that, and we will operate that equipment, we will operate those aircraft in every way possible so that there can be no injury to those people."
General Allen said a second Navy task force led by the amphibious assault ship the Bonhomme Richard had entered the Indian Ocean Monday to join in operations off Sumatra. Later in the week that Navy group, carrying 24 helicopters is to move to the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
General Allen said the biggest cargo planes flown by the U.S. Air Force, C-5 and C-17 aircraft, are delivering supplies to an operations hub at Utapao air based in Thailand.
He said American aircraft had flown in about a half-million kilograms of supplies in one of the largest U.S. military missions in the region since the Vietnam war.
On the civilian side, U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator James Kunder said 135 officials of the aid agency are now in affected areas, assessing how best to allocate the $350 million in earthquake and tsunami aid pledged by the Bush administration.
Mr. Kunder said a major thrust of the U.S. effort will be to underwrite local clean-up projects. He said the approach, being started with a $10 million program in Sri Lanka, will help revive ruined local economies and help jobless and dislocated people deal with the trauma of the disaster.
"The psycho-social impact of this crisis is grave. People are still disoriented, still stunned by the magnitude of the crisis. And based on our experience in previous crises of this magnitude, it is important to get people back to work," said Mr. Kunder. "And we hope these cash-for work programs will begin to get people back to work and engaged in the clean-up process so they can begin the psycho-social process of restoring their lives."
Mr. Kunder said U.S. relief operations were now underway in all Asian countries affected by the crisis with the exception of Burma, where the government has made no disaster declaration and has not given American or other international assessment teams access to coastal areas.
Geologists say computer modeling of the earthquake and tsunamis suggests that Burma's southern coast should have been hit as hard as southern Thailand, where nearly 5,000 people are believed to have been killed.
But Burma's reclusive military government has reported only 53 people killed along that country's 2,500 kilometers of Indian Ocean coastline.