Sea of Sorrow

The world suffers an epic tragedy as a tsunami spreads death across Asia. An on-the-scene look at how it happened--and whether the carnage could have been avoided

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The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami that Bustami survived has killed tens of thousands. The precise number is so far unknown and ultimately unknowable. On Dec. 30, the Indonesian government doubled the number of likely dead in that country alone to 80,000, though that was no more than a guess. The area most affected by the quake and tsunami is Aceh, at Sumatra's northern tip--difficult to get to in the best of times and a place where a long and bloody insurgency has made travel and the provision of emergency services desperately hard. Whole fishing villages in Aceh have probably been wiped out, with nobody left to count the human cost. With estimated death counts of almost 9,000 in India, 29,000 in Sri Lanka, 5,000 in Thailand and smaller numbers in seven other countries, the immediate death toll attributable to the disaster was well over 123,000 by late Saturday. And stalking behind the water and toppled rubble that had drowned or crushed so many, death was ready to arrive in the form of disease. The waters washed over some of the poorest parts of the world, destroying primitive sewage systems, contaminating rudimentary water supplies, readying countless infants for death by diarrhea and providing luscious breeding grounds for the insects that transmit malaria and dengue.

Like no other natural disaster in living memory, the Asian tsunami induced a planetary torrent of sorrow, followed by a massive outpouring of money and supplies from public and private sources that at times overwhelmed the relief workers and government agencies trying to deliver water, food and medicine to those in greatest danger. The Bush Administration pledged an initial sum of $15 million and was promptly pilloried for offering aid inadequate to the scale of the disaster. (In the initial count, 15 Americans were reported dead.) Stung by criticism of the U.S.'s perceived parsimony, the Administration increased the contribution to $350 million. The Pentagon deployed the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and 11 other warships loaded with supplies, helicopters and soldiers to the coast of western Sumatra to help in the relief effort. Some 1,500 U.S. Marines headed for Sri Lanka. All told, governments around the world pledged more than $2 billion in the first week of the crisis, a figure that is sure to rise. The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, who earlier accused the world's richest nations of being "stingy," said he has "never, ever, seen such an outpouring of international assistance in any international disaster, ever."

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