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US Troops Providing Tsunami Relief to Sri Lankans

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has visited the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle, where U.S. military personnel are providing assistance in areas devastated by last month's tsunami. VOA's Patricia Nunan is in Galle and brings us a closer look at the American relief operation.

A team of U.S. Marines brought dump trucks, bulldozers, and backhoes to Sri Lanka's city of Galle to help it dig out from under tons of debris scattered by last month's tsunami. On this day, the Marines are working at the Gintota primary and middle school just outside the city.

Assanta daSilva lives near the school and saw what happened when the waves hit on December 26.

He says when the first wave came it knocked down the school's wall. The second wave washed over the entire building. When it receded, he says, it took everything - the school chairs, all the papers, everything went into the sea.

Fortunately, the day the tsunami struck was a holiday, so no children were in class. Less fortunate is the fact that the school was too badly damaged to be used again. Before building a new school elsewhere, officials have ordered the remains of this one to be torn down.

That is where the U.S. Marines are coming in handy. Captain Danny Chung, a Marine spokesman, says his men are giving the Sri Lankans a head start.

"We can not come in here and rebuild structures, we can not do any type of rebuilding. But what we can do is clear debris, clear rubble, help them rebuild their seawalls like we have done, help them clear out the schools… What we have done is demolish a number of unsound structures and make it possible for the Sri Lankans to rebuild."

Altogether, the United States has provided about $38 million to Sri Lanka for disaster relief. About 600 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel are deployed across the disaster area. In addition to clearing debris, they are providing medical assistance and distributing water to camps for people left homeless by the disaster.

More than 38,000 people in Sri Lanka were killed by the tsunami and officials say that figure could eventually exceed 40,000, as those still listed as missing are confirmed dead.

Among the many officials visiting the nations affected by the tsunami is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. He spoke to members of the community at the Gintota school.

"We are very sorry about what happened here," he said. "It is hard for us to imagine what it would be like. But the whole world wants to help you - my country especially."

Earlier, Mr. Wolfowitz visited tsunami-ravaged parts of Indonesia, which lost more than 115,000 people.

The Sri Lankan government says it will officially launch the reconstruction phase of its tsunami recovery Wednesday.