The confirmed deaths in a mammoth Asian quake and tsunami soared above 60,000 today as worst-hit Indonesia readied bulldozers to dig mass graves for corpses in a rush to ward off disease, which the UN health agency said could double the toll.
Tens of thousands of people were still missing across a dozen countries from Indonesia to Sri Lanka to Somalia. The millions of people whose homes were swept away or wrecked by raging walls of water Sunday struggled to find shelter.
“My mother, no word! My sisters, brothers, aunt, uncle, grandmother, no word!” yelled a woman at a makeshift morgue in Lhokseumawe, Indonesia. “Where are they? Where are they? I don’t know where to start looking.”
Indonesia’s Health Ministry said thousands more bodies were found, raising to more than 32,000 the number of confirmed deaths on Sumatra island, the territory closest to the quake that sent tsunami waves rolling across the Indian Ocean.
“We will start digging the mass graves today,” Indonesian military Col. Achmad Yani Busaki said in the Sumatran city of Banda Aceh today as bulldozers stood at the ready.
With the threat of disease looming and little way of identifying the thousands of bodies lining the city’s streets and the lawns of government offices, the army had no choice but to get the corpses under ground, he said.
Sri Lanka today listed more than 21,700 people dead, India close to 4,500 - with 8,000 missing and feared dead. Thailand put its toll at more than 1,500. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
Indonesia’s count did not include a report of 10,000 more dead around one coastal city, and the country’s vice president estimated the overall toll at 40,000.
Aid groups struggled to mount what they described as the largest relief operation the world has seen, and to head off the threat of cholera and malaria epidemics that could break out where water supplies are polluted with bodies and debris.
With aid not arriving quickly enough, desperate people in towns across Sumatra stole whatever food they could find, officials said.
Widespread looting also was reported in Thailand’s devastated resort islands of Phuket and Phi Phi, where European and Australian tourists left valuables behind in wrecked hotels when they fled – or were swept away by – the torrents.
An international airlift was under way to ferry critical aid and medicine to Phuket and to take home shellshocked travellers. Jets from France and Australia were among the first to touch down at the island’s airport. Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden planned similar flights.
Dr David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the World Health Organisation, warned that disease could take as many lives as Sunday’s devastation.
“The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer-term suffering of the affected communities,” he told reporters at the UN agency’s offices in Geneva.
Along India’s southern coast, paramedics on Wednesday began vaccinating 65,000 tsunami survivors in Tamil Nadu state against cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery, said Gagandeep Singh Bedi, a top government administrator.
“We have started spraying bleaching powder on the beaches from where the bodies have been recovered,” said Veera Shanmuga Moni, a top administrator of the state’s Nagappattinam district.
The world’s biggest reinsurer, Germany’s Munich Re, estimated the damage to buildings and foundations in the affected regions would be at least €9.9bn.
Donations for recovery efforts came in from all parts of the globe.
The governments of the United States, Australia and Japan pledged a combined $100m (€73.4m) while taxi drivers in Singapore put donation tins in their cars and volunteers in Thailand text-messaged acquaintances to give blood to the Red Cross.
Hong Kong’s kung fu king Jackie Chan pitched in $64,000 (€47,000) to UNICEF, and Asia’s richest man – Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing – gave $3.1m (€2.3m) to relief efforts.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of nature’s force came to light when reporters reached the scene of a Sri Lankan train carrying beachgoers that was swept into a marsh by a wall of water on Sunday, killing at least 802.
Eight rust-coloured cars lay in deep pools of water in a ravaged palm grove, torn off wheels and baggage scattered among the twisted rails.
In Indonesia, television footage from overflights of Sumatra’s west coast showed thousands of homes underwater. Refugees fleeing the coast described surviving on little more than coconuts before reaching Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra’s northern tip, which itself was largely flattened by the quake.
“The sea was full of bodies,” said one refugee, Sukardi Kasdi, who sailed a small boat to Banda Aceh to seek help for his family, whom he said had nothing to eat but coconuts. “I don’t know how long everyone else will survive.”