US troops ramp up Indonesia quake relief

October 6, 2009 4:58:17 PM PDT
American troops set up a field hospital Tuesday and rerouted ships to aid victims of a powerful earthquake that left hundreds of thousands homeless, in their largest relief operation in Muslim-majority Indonesia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The expansion of the U.S. mission comes as efforts shifted from searching for survivors amid the rubble to providing relief to villages that have been cut off by massive landslides generated by last week's magnitude-7.6 quake.

Aid workers from at least 20 countries focused on caring for the homeless, who huddled in makeshift shelters and cooked meager meals of rice and noodles over open fires or ate vegetables from their fields.

Rear Adm. Richard Landolt, who arrived Tuesday in Padang, the largest city in the quake zone, told The Associated Press that three U.S. Navy ships were on their way, full of supplies, food and heavy equipment that can be used to clear roads and excavate collapsed buildings.

"There is a huge valve that is about to turn on," he said. "There is going to be a terrific ramp-up of operations out here."

Landolt said two naval ships were expected to arrive in the next day or so. A supply ship has also been cleared to begin operations with four helicopters large enough to carry 30-40 people or equipment to areas that cannot be reached by land, he said.

Also Tuesday, 69 U.S. troops - including 11 doctors - flown in from Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Japan opened up a 300-bed field hospital outside Padang's main medical facility.

"We are ready for the long haul," said Col. Dan Settergren, who led the military team that set up the hospital. "We will do whatever it takes."

The official death toll rose Tuesday to 704 and officials said it could reach into the thousands.

Lt. Col. Dan Olson, the chief doctor at the hospital, said the main concern is to keep infectious diseases from spreading, while also giving more space to local doctors who are now operating out of hospitals that have been severely damaged by the quake.

"Usually, if there has been a big disaster the infrastructure has been destroyed and infectious diseases like diarrhea and cholera can be a very, very big problem," he said. "We haven't had any reports of that yet, so it remains to be seen whether it will become a risk."

The bolstered U.S. military mission comes as so much aid was arriving at Padang's tiny airport from around the world that flights had to be delayed because there was no space for them to land.

A USAID flight with 50 tons of supplies was scheduled to land Tuesday, but had to be postponed until Wednesday.

Supplies - including drinking water and medicines - are desperately needed in outlying areas, which were inundated by landslides after the quake, but some survivors complained that aid was slow in coming.

Eni Fahriani came to an aid center near the provincial governor's office in Padang from her village 25 miles (40 kilometers) away on Tuesday after the five packets of noodles and an egg her family of six was given by a private group five days earlier ran out.

"Even one drop of drink we have not yet got from the government," she said. "I saw a mountain of aid on TV, I saw broadcasters showing packages of basic foods, toiletries, toothbrushes, even clothes. ... Where are they going to? We need it now."

The sensitivity of the shift from rescue to relief was underscored as bulldozers began razing to the ground a hotel in Padang that has become a symbol of the quake's devastation.

The bulldozers buried hopes that any of the more than 100 people believed inside would be found alive.

"I've been coming here every day for any kind of news," Firmansyah Blis said as he watched backhoes dig chunks of concrete from the wreckage of the hotel, where his wife was last seen. "I doubt she is alive. I think the search crews tried hard to find her. I just want them to find her body."

Shortly after the work began, Australian experts used specialized voice detection equipment to scour the remnants of the Ambacang hotel in four different places after a worker said he heard a woman's voice.

They found no signs of life, said team leader John Cowcutt, and demolition of the remnants of the building resumed.

"We have stopped looking for living survivors and are maximizing the use of heavy equipment," said Ade Edward, head of operations control at West Sumatra's Center for Disaster Management.

"We hope to clear the rubble in two weeks so we can start reconstruction."

Landolt said the new phase of relief operations will require close coordination with local authorities because of the logistical difficulties, but added that both sides had learned lessons from the giant tsunami that devastated parts of Sumatra and southern Asia in 2004, when Indonesia was at first reluctant to accept foreign aid.

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Associated Press writers Irwan Firdaus and Niniek Karmini in Padang, and Sarah Sayekti and Anthony Deutsch in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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