Aid agencies and governments around the world began pouring relief supplies into south Asia Monday after a magnitude 9 earthquake struck deep beneath the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia Sunday morning, setting off massive tidal waves that obliterated seaside towns and killed more than 22,000 people in nine countries. Officials indicated Monday the death toll could climb much higher.
The quake—the world's most powerful in four decades—first struck around 7 a.m. with multiple tremors felt in the Andaman islands. The quake triggered tidal waves, which swept across the Indian Ocean, striking coastal regions of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia. The tsunami also swept across the low-lying islands that make up the Maldives.
According to the Associated Press, more than 12,000 deaths were reported in Sri Lanka. Indonesia reported about 5,000 deaths and India 4,000. Meanwhile, Thailand said hundreds of people were dead and thousands more were missing. Deaths were also reported in Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Somalia.
Additionally, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the death toll on the island of Sumatra--closest to the epicenter--could climb to 10,000 people.
U.S. President George W. Bush expressed his condolences over the "terrible loss of life and suffering." From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II led appeals for aid for victims.
Yvette Stevens, an emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, told AP that the widespread nature of the damage made it challenging for relief agencies to respond.
"This is unprecedented," she said. "We have not had this before."
The United Nations said it was concentrating its aid on the countries least likely to be able to help themselves, such as Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Yesterday, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL), a member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, reported that it had already started responding to the emergency brought on by the massive sea surge, which swamped the country's southern, eastern and northern coast lines.
"I can't describe the disaster that has hit Sri Lanka very unexpectedly and have thrown millions of lives into complete disarray," wrote Xavier, an emergency officer with NCCSL. "We have broken our vacation and are working today to assist those who are helpless during these times. Please help us."
NCCSL reports that a sea surge triggered by the under-sea quake caused massive inland tides (in some instances up to 2.5 km long) in places like Trinco, Batticaloa, Amaprai, Matara, Galle. Xavier reported that from the telephone messages received from clergy, "it is feared that [the death toll] may rise, since the exact number of those who went fishing is not yet known." NCCSL also reported that the north of the country has been hard hit, although no casualty figures are available from there yet. "In Thirukovil, three whole villages got drowned. In a hospital in Kinniya, Trinco, which is within 500 meters from the shore, the [sea swept out] some 25 patients."
According to NCCSL there has also been complete destruction in parts of the capital city Colombo along the seashore where many of the poorest of the city lived. The tides swept most of their homes and belongings out to sea. Telephone lines are also down, making communication difficult.
Xavier said that as he was coming into the office Sunday morning, "I traversed Galle Road (one of the most important highways of Sri Lanka) and people are there in utter panic. Pockets of crowds are gathered around those affected by this event, and listen to the stories of those relating to the horror experienced. They are utterly frightened."
"I received a SMS (text message) saying that the Batti situation is worsening. People are utterly confused. A few churches that were close by to the coast were also submerged. One church pastor called to say that there is only 50 more meters for sea to reach his church, which is quite far from the sea," he added.
NCCSL has already dispatched money to Colombo for food parcels for people in need of assistance. At an emergency meeting of the heads of the churches and the NCCSL, it was decided to immediately send three pastoral teams to the affected regions, Trinco, Batticaloa, and Down Southern coasts.
"We keep receiving requests from all over, from the churches in the coastal area," said Xavier. "I myself keep calling my home and update myself about my family in Mount Lavania, on the coastal stretch of Colombo."
Locations for the proposed response in Sri Lanka are in the north (northern and peninsular coastal regions), in the east (Batticaloa, Thirukovil, Amparai, Trinco and Muttur), the Down southern coastal region (Galle and Matara) and the western coastal region (Kalutara and Wattala).
Currently, members of ACT International in India, Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) and Lutheran World Service India (LWSI) have been in touch with the ACT Coordinating Office (CO) in Geneva. ACT reports that they will be working together with ACT member United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India (UELCI) to assess people's needs in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, CASA reports that requests have been coming in from local churches and the agency is arranging that two assessment teams (15 people to a team) travel to the coastal areas of the states first thing on Monday, Dec. 27. CASA has also been in touch with Christian Aid and DanChurchAid's local offices in India.
LWSI's emergencies program director, K.G. Mathaikutty, said that local media reports indicate of widespread destruction in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Pondichery, Kerala and Orissa.
In Indonesia, the province of Aceh on Sumatra's northernmost tip near the epicenter of the under-sea quake, is reported to have been hit the worst. Members of ACT in Indonesia, Yayasan Tanggul Benkana (YTB), Yakkum Emergency Unit/CD Bethesda (YEU) and Church World Service CWS) will be coordinating their response to the emergency. Reports are that the island of Nias, one of the areas where YTB works, has been hit very hard. The island, which is generally underdeveloped, has a population of nearly 700,000 people. No reports have been received so far from Aceh.
Several members of the ACT alliance in Europe have already contacted the ACT CO, pledging financial support to the ACT members in the region. A preliminary ACT appeal is expected to be issued this week.