Tsunami Death Toll Nears 300,000

WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2005 (ENS) - The number of people known to be dead or missing one month after the December 26 earthquake and tsunami neared 300,000 Tuesday after Indonesia revised its casualty figures. The country’s health ministry said 228,164 people are now believed dead or missing, an increase of more than 50,000 over earlier figures. The total death toll includes fatalities in 10 other Indian Ocean rim countries.

More than 40 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, mobilizing at least 9,000 volunteers and nearly 300 international staff, from donor nations as well as from affected countries, are delivering food, clean water, health care, psychological support, shelter materials as well as household and hygiene articles to the survivors of the worst natural catastrophe in living memory.


In the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, survivors seek loved ones amongst the dead. December 30, 2004 (Photo by Agus Muldya courtesy Jakarta IMC)
Dozens of other aid agencies are doing their utmost to help the nearly two million displaced people in difficult conditions, including heavy rains, and a runaway fire Monday in Banda Aceh started by residents burning garbage.

The United Nations said warnings about the threat of infectious diseases after the tsunami have helped prevent a major outbreak of cholera or dysentery in the region.

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, some areas of the west coast still are cut off except for helicopter access, due to the destruction of more than 50 bridges along that coast. But the surviving population in these hardest hit areas is low, according to Dr. Tony Stewart, a medical epidemiologist with Australia's Centre for International Health and the Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health who is in Aceh working to strengthen disease surveillance after the tsunami.

"In some areas the mortality due to the tsunami was greater than 90 percent," he said Tuesday.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) is now feeding one million people who survived the tsunami and the organization is appealing to governments for US$256 million to feed two million people.

WFP Executive Director James Morris said that private companies and individuals have collectively provided 20 percent of the US$256 million food relief operation for tsunami survivors, a record in the agency’s more than 40 years of existence.

“It is exciting and inspiring for us to see such an unprecedented response from the private sector,” Morris said, citing contributions to WFP ranging from helicopters to on-line cash donations to drinking water and logistics experts.

Within the first 12 days after the earthquake and tsunami, the top Fortune 500 companies pledged over US$100 million to assist survivors. Many of those pledges were made in the first 100 hours, before some governments had responded. According to research by Hill & Knowlton, handled by Penn Schoen Berland, many companies described a grassroots movement, where staff spurred their management into action.

Government pledges for tsunami relief amounted to nearly $4 billion.


Humanitarian and medical aid organized by Medecins Sans Frontieres is loaded onto the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior at Krueng Raya, Indonesia. The shipment of medical supplies and food is on its way to Meulaboh on the west coast of Aceh province. (Photo by Christian Aslund courtesy Greenpeace)
But the international aid agency Oxfam warned in a new report that while the initial donor response to help survivors was generous, some of the funds pledged have not materialized and trade and debt reforms are being avoided.

The international aid agency Oxfam warned in a new report that while the initial donor response to help survivors was generous, some of the funds pledged have not materialized and trade and debt reforms are being avoided.

The UN humanitarian appeal that governments fund is still 26 percent underfunded, Oxfam said. The UN has requested US$977 million but has only received US$723 million. Oxfam is calling on donor governments to fully fund the appeal and deliver the money quickly, as in the past, "funds have been pledged and not materialized."

Oxfam International Advocacy Director Bernice Romero said that rather than agreeing to cancel significant proportions of debt, the rich countries have chosen "the easy option of a temporary suspension of repayments, which will only be reapplied in a few months." It is likely that interest will continue to be charged and the debt repayments will have grown when the tsunami-hit countries have to start paying the debts back, she warned.

Oxfam is asking that governments to do an urgent assessment of what level of debt is now sustainable for each indebted tsunami-affected country, and cancel the remainder of the debt.

For American shores, both houses of Congress are working to put new tsunami protections in place.

Today the House Science Committee is holding the first Congressional hearings on U.S. tsunami preparedness. The hearing will evaluate the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's new plan to spend $37.5 million over two years to extend the U.S. tsunami warning system to new areas in the Pacific Ocean, as well as to the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, Ranking Member Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, and committee member Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, introduced the Tsunami Preparedness Act on Monday.

The Commerce Committee is expected to hold hearings on the legislation during the first week in February.


A tsunami warning buoy is visited by a NOAA research vessel. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
“The shock of what happened in the Indian Ocean caused all of us to start asking tough questions about what could happen in the state of Washington,” said Cantwell. “This bill is going to improve the reliability of our existing tsunami warning system, and make sure we have our arms around the magnitude of the risk, when seconds can save lives.”

The Tsunami Preparedness Act would expand the current network of deep ocean tsunami warning buoys to cover the entire Pacific Ocean, as well as areas at risk in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

The bill would require the immediate repair of malfunctioning tsunami detection and warning buoys - also known as tsunameters. Earlier this month, it was reported that three of the six existing Pacific Coast buoys are broken. The bill requires the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to immediately fix these detection buoys, and to notify Congress whenever a malfunction occurs.

Cantwell added provisions to the legislation that would ensure comprehensive vulnerability assessments and inundation mapping for inland bodies of water, including the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Although mapping has been completed for the 45,000 Washingtonians who live within a mile of the coastline, they have yet been completed for at-risk areas near inland bodies of water, which are home to another 250,000 state residents.

The bill also establishes a community based tsunami hazard mitigation program to improve tsunami preparedness plans.

The bill proposes an investment in tsunami research and technology. Seattle 's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) will play a leading role in the bill's research program, which will focus on development of the next generation of tsunami prediction, detection, communication and mitigation technology. The bill authorizes $35 million annually through fiscal year 2012 to carry out these initiatives.

On Saturday, the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction concluded in Kobe, Japan, with 168 delegations pledging to reduce the risks facing millions of people who are exposed to natural calamities.

Participants adopted the “Hyogo Framework for Action: 2005–2015,” named after the prefecture in which Kobe is located. The 10 year plan calls for putting disaster risk at the center of national policies, strengthening the capacity of disaster prone countries to address risk, and investing heavily in disaster preparedness.

“This new plan will help reduce the gap between what we know and what we do; the critical ingredient is political commitment,” said UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, who has been deeply involved in the tsunami relief effort.


UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland addresses the closing session of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
In Kobe, an International Early Warning Programme was launched to improve resilience to all types of natural hazards including droughts, wildland fires, floods, typhoons, hurricanes, landslides, volcanic eruption and tsunamis.

The World Conference held a special session where delegates pledged their support to create a regional tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean.

Also launched during the conference were an international flood initiative, an alliance to support earthquake risk reduction and the earthquake megacities initiative, all geared to helping countries and communities cope with disasters.

“The world may not be a safer place next week," said Egeland, "but that is when we will have to start working together to ensure that commitments made at this event become a reality."