Toll from tsunamis hits 44,000

The death toll from epic tsunamis that rocked 11 countries rose to 44,000 people today after Sri Lanka and Indonesia significantly increased their confirmed deaths.
Rescuers struggled to reach remote locations where thousands more likely were killed by the deadliest tsunami in 120 years. Government officials warned the toll could climb by tens of thousands.
Bodies—many of them children—filled beaches and choked hospital morgues, raising fears of disease across an 11-nation arc of destruction.
Sri Lanka today raised its death toll past 18,700. In Indonesia, the country closest to Sunday’s 9.0 magnitude quake that sent walls of water crashing into coastlines thousands of miles away, the count rose to 15,000—a number the vice-president said could rise further.
“Thousands of victims cannot be reached in some isolated and remote areas,” said Purnomo Sidik, the national disaster director.
Some 4,400 died in India while 1,000 perished in Thailand. The Red Cross said malaria and cholera could add to the toll.
Desperate residents on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island—160 km from the quake’s epicentre—looted stores today.
The disaster could be the costliest in history, with “many billions of dollars” of damage, said UN Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief co-ordination.
Hundreds of thousands lost all they owned, he said.
In Galle, Sri Lanka, officials used a loudspeaker atop a fire engine to tell residents to place bodies on the road for collection. Muslim families used cooking utensils and even their bare hands to dig graves.
Hindus in India—abandoning their tradition of burning bodies—held mass burials.
Soldiers and volunteers in Indonesia combed through destroyed houses to try to find survivors—or bodies. The toll in Thailand included at least 700 foreign tourists.
Amid the devastation emerged stories of survival.
In Malaysia, a 20-day-old baby was found floating on a mattress soon after the waves hit Sunday. She and her family were reunited.
The geographic scope of the disaster was unparalleled. Relief organizations used to dealing with a centralized crisis had to distribute resources over 11 countries on two continents.
Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas. In Sri Lanka, the Health Ministry dispatched 300 physicians to the disaster zone by helicopter.
Sri Lankan Foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said the United States was sending helicopters. An airborne surgical hospital from Finland arrived, and a German aircraft was en route with a water purification plant.
UNICEF officials said about 175 tonnes of rice arrived in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, late yesterday while six tons of medical supplies were expected to arrive by Thursday.
But most basic supplies were scarce.
It was the deadliest known tsunami since the one caused by the 1883 volcanic eruption at Krakatoa—located off Sumatra’s southern tip—which killed an estimated 36,000 people.
Many of the dead and missing were children—as many as half the victims in Sri Lanka.
“Where are my children?” asked 41-year-old Absah as she searched for her 11 youngsters in Banda Aceh, the city closest to Sunday’s epicentre. “Where are they? Why did this happen to me? I’ve lost everything.”
The streets in Banda Aceh were filled with overturned cars and rotting corpses. Shopping malls and office buildings lay in rubble, and thousands of homeless families huddled in mosques and schools.
Relatives wandered hallways lined with bodies at the hospital in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Galle—a stunned hush broken only by wails of mourning.
At least three Canadians were among the dead, with two killed in Thailand and one in Sri Lanka, Foreign Affairs said.
Two others are officially listed as missing while 12 were injured.
Rubina Wong, 25, of B.C. was believed to be one of the missing. She was swept away from the Thai island of Phi Phi, where she was vacationing with her boyfriend, Michael Lang, 28, and his sister, Christine.
A photograph of Wong was hung at the Vachira Phuket Hospital asking those with any information to contact the family or the for any information of her.
Momentum grew to create a tsunami warning system like the one that guards Pacific coasts. Foreign minister Alexander Downer said Australia would push for its creation.
“I know it looks like a bit like closing the door after the horse has bolted,” Downer said today. But he added he hoped such a system would save lives in the future.
The United States dispatched disaster teams and prepared a $15-million (U.S.) aid package. Japan pledged $30 million (U.S.) and Australia $8 million (U.S.)
Indonesia’s Aceh province exemplified the challenge to aid workers. The government until yesterday barred foreigners because of a separatist conflict.
Communications lines were still down and remote villages had yet to be reached.
“There is not anyone to bury the bodies,” said Steve Aswin, a UNICEF official in Jakarta. “They should be buried in mass graves but there is no one to dig graves.”
Sri Lankan police waived the law calling for mandatory autopsies, allowing rotting corpses to be buried immediately. “We accept that the deaths were caused by drowning,” police spokesman Rienzie Perera said.
India today said a nuclear power plant damaged by tidal waves was safe and that there was no threat of radiation.