U.S. military assessment teams are on the ground in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and a U.S. carrier group has begun relief operations in the region hit by Sunday's devastating earthquake and tsunami. U.S. officials briefed reporters Friday by telephone from Hawaii.
Navy Captain Rodger Welch, operations director for the U.S. military's Pacific Command, says assessment teams are assisting local authorities in the three countries, and 9,000 personnel are on board U.S. Navy ships in the region. He says more personnel, ships and aircraft are enroute.
A U.N. official says the death toll is approaching 150,000 and an international armada heading for the region includes ships from Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and India, as well as the United States.
The military official says 10 U.S. C-130 aircraft are now flying supplies to the hardest-hit areas of Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where patrol aircraft are performing damage assessment and participating in search-and-rescue missions.
Helicopters based on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln carrier group, now in the Strait of Malacca, were preparing to deliver supplies assembled at such regional relief centers as Medan in northern Indonesia, near the heavily devastated Aceh province. Captain Welch said the initial supplies consist of water, shelter, food and medicine. "And all the helicopters can also move people, and they've already started doing so. So far, we see helicopters go down-range with supplies into the impacted areas, and then they will medivac [evacuate]people back to areas where there are hospital facilities and doctors. So we're using them both ways," he said.
Officials say U.S. operations are being coordinated with the host governments as part of a massive international relief effort, and that U.S. military help ranges from medical expertise to forensics.
Some of the 20 U.S. ships now heading for the region will be stationed off the coast of Sri Lanka, and others will assist a large-scale effort underway in Thailand.