While defending its contribution to the overall tsunami relief effort, the Bush administration on Thursday also touched on the efforts it is making to locate and help Americans caught in the disaster and identify U.S. victims.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said American diplomats were, for instance, visiting morgues in Indonesia as part of their search. The U.S. death toll was officially raised from 12 to 14, with seven dead in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka.
Some 600 Americans who were listed as missing have been found, Boucher said, but several thousand had not been located four days after the disaster struck.
In Sri Lanka, Boucher said, Americans have been showing up at U.S. consular offices wearing bathing suits, with no money and no clothes.
In Thailand, the U.S. Embassy set up an information booth in the resort area of Phuket to help American vacationers make calls, replace lost passports for free or simply get out of town, said Angela Aggeler, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the branch of the State Department that helps Americans overseas.
The State Department has also strongly urged Americans traveling or living in countries affected by the tsunami to call home if they have not already done so.
The State Department set up a command center Monday, a day after the disaster, to take calls from worried families, friends and would-be travelers. Working around the clock, the center has a running list of 2,000 to 3,000 names of Americans who may be missing.
“There are families calling us all the time, ‘I haven’t heard from my son. It’s been three days,”’ Boucher said Wednesday.
“We shouldn’t assume the worst,” Boucher said. “We have to assume it’s a process that will go on for some time and that just because we have large numbers of Americans that we’re trying to identify and look for doesn’t mean that they’re all in bad straits.”
Although the overall scale of the death and damage is enormous, only portions of each country were affected. Americans traveling or living in parts of South Asia and East Africa that were unscathed may not think to contact relatives or friends at home and let them know they are fine.
“People who know they’re hundreds of miles away from where ... the disaster might have occurred need to call home and tell their relatives,” to whom the entire region may seem “only a quarter-inch on the map,” Boucher said.