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Tsunami Death Toll Could Top 100,000; Massive Relief Effort Under Way

The Red Cross is warning the death toll from Sunday's earthquake-triggered tsunami across the Indian Ocean could surpass 100,000. The bodies of those pulled out to sea by the initial wall of water are now washing up on Asia's shorelines as rescue crews from around the world try to care for those who survived and contain the threat of disease.

It's being called a disaster of unprecedented proportions, with the number of dead continuing to climb by the hour. Tens of thousands of people still remain unaccounted for with the likelihood increasing that as the hours go by, they too will be added to the dead.

"The death rates are higher sadly, than anything the media is reporting," said USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. He was speaking as the Red Cross predicts the overall death toll from tsunamis triggered by Sunday's magnitude nine earthquake off the coast of western Indonesia could top the 100,000 mark.

"The death tolls are higher in all the countries than we anticipated, but particularly in Indonesia," he added.

Tsunami victims in Thailand

The United Nations is now warning that millions of people who managed to survive the initial disaster are at risk of cholera and diarrhea because of contaminated water. Rescue operations are being hampered by widespread property destruction and the inability to quickly get relief supplies to remote locations.

Red Cross official Alastair Gordon Gibson is in Sri Lanka, among the countries hardest hit. "There is chaos. It's very difficult for aid agencies and the government support to get down to affected areas quickly enough," he said.

Video shot from aircraft over hard hit areas of Sri Lanka shows scenes of widespread devastation. People and property alike were swept away by the killer tsunami and bodies lie in the streets covered with debris. Sky News correspondent Ashish Josi in the Sri Lankan town of Galle came across many who escaped with only their lives.

"All they can do is wait by the roadside, hoping someone, anyone will bring food and water," he said. "Nobody has come to our aid, [they say] no officials have seen what's happened to us. We don't have any clothes, no food. All we get is scraps."

The scene is much the same in western Indonesia, in areas closest to the epicenter of Sunday's quake that struck off the coast of Sumatra. News footage shows town after town covered in mud and seawater with few signs of life.

The United States, along with India, Australia and Japan are taking the lead in what is being described as one of the largest international relief efforts in history. General James Conway of the Pentagon's Joint Staff says thousands of U.S. military personnel and dozens of aircraft and ships are being moved into the region.

"Three disaster relief assessment teams are either in place or moving into place,” said Mr. Conway. “The first arrived in Thailand this morning. Their task of course will be to make an immediate assessment as to the nature and the scope of the impact of the disaster."

From his ranch in Texas, President Bush described the devastation as beyond comprehension. And in his first public comments since Sunday's disaster, he responded to criticism from a top United Nations official who accused rich western nations of being stingy in their response.

"I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill informed," he said.

The United States, he says, provided 40 percent of all disaster relief donated to the world last year, an amount equaling some $2.4 billion.