Geography and logistics confound relief

Wreckage of train destroyed when the tsunami struck Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka and killed at least 802 people.
Wreckage of train destroyed when the tsunami struck Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka and killed at least 802 people.James Hattori / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

Geography, logistics and the sheer immensity of the Asian tsunami disaster continue to confound the world’s largest relief effort.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where officials believe the death toll will reach 100,000, a round-the-clock airlift operation is under way at the airport in Banda Aceh, the regional capital. 

Relief flights from the United States, Australia, Singapore and Great Britain are bringing countless tons of water, food and medical supplies.

Twelve U.S. Sea Hawk helicopters are making drops to the more isolated villagers, who are in serious need.

In some places, the helicopters can’t land because local residents, faces pained with desperation, crowd around as the choppers hover, stretching their hands towards flight crews who toss out relief packages. One pilot described the landscape as worst than any war scene he’s witnessed.

Up to 1.8 million in need of relief efforts
But it is perhaps the scenes that have not yet been witnessed, in areas yet to be reached by any relief efforts, that are at the greatest risk. 

United Nations officials now estimate that 1.8 million survivors in the tsunami-hit areas will need food and other aid in order tosurvive the coming days and weeks as dehydration, disease and hunger threaten to add to the death toll.

In Thailand, where some 5,000 people were killed — half of them tourists — in southern resort islands, family members have arrived in hopes of identifying the bodies of their loved ones.

Bulletin boards have been erected. One shows faces of recovered bodies. Another has missing posters left by families.

Train wreckage
In Sri Lanka, one of the single deadliest tsunami-related incidents occurred when a passenger train was swept off its tracks on the outskirts of the small town of Hikkaduwa, a resort area popular with surfers and Westerners. An estimated 1,000 to 1,200 people were on board the train and at least 802 were killed. 

When NBC News visited the scene over the weekend, one week after the disaster, army personnel were still removing bodies, carrying them one by one in a makeshift stretcher made of salvaged wood and cloth. 

The smell of death still hangs in the air, occasionally blown away by an occasional sea breeze. Hundreds of bodies are buried right across the road on the beach.

Karl Max Huntke, a German man who owns a house 100 yards away, witnessed the accident. He says it was like watching a horror movie, with people crying everywhere.

The first wave of water inundated the area, but didn’t affect the train, explained Huntke. People climbed on top of the eight passenger cars. Then a second more devastating wave came crashing across and scattered the cars across an adjacent field. The tracks were knocked off their foundation.

Huntke and his family only survived by going up to the attic, then breaking through the roof and climbing on top.

Rains compound misery
In eastern Sri Lanka, heavy rains over the weekend compounded the misery of local villagers. Thousands reportedly were forced to flee refugee camps. Many others have yet to be reached in areas where roads have been washed-out by the tsunami. 

Here, as in other places, health concerns are growing. The greatest threat is from waterborne diseases.

Thousands of Sri Lankans are believed to be missing in territory held by Tamil rebels, who had waged a two-decade old battle against the government. A cease-fire has been in effect over the past couple of years. 

But now the greatest hopes for peace and cooperation stems from the need for both sides to deal with a massive human tragedy with no political boundary.