The Bush administration broadened its response to the earthquake and tsunami disaster in South Asia and Africa with plans for Secretary of State Colin Powell to visit the region and assess what more the United States needs to do.
“All Americans are shocked and saddened by the tragic loss of life and the destruction around the Indian Ocean,” President George Bush said in a statement read by White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.
“To co-ordinate this massive relief effort, first-hand assessments are needed by individuals on the ground.”
The president’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has experience with extensive hurricane damage in Florida, will travel with Powell. A congressional delegation headed by Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican and a former US foreign service officer, is scheduled to visit Thailand and Sri Lanka next week.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who often travels to blighted areas, said he plans to visit India to try to help victims of tsunamis that have left millions of people at risk of disease.
“I feel like I’ve been hit in the stomach,” Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said in an e-mail to friends and supporters. “It is like 9/11 but so different. There is no one to blame.”
Powell was travelling to New York today to discuss the crisis with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The United Nations was added to the core group of countries and organisations planning relief efforts. The others are the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
The US death toll rose to 14, with seven dead in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said some 600 Americans who were listed as missing have been found, but several thousand had not been located four days after the disaster struck.
In Sri Lanka, Boucher said, Americans have been showing up at US consular offices wearing bathing suits, with no money and no clothes.
Responding to persistent criticism that US pledges have been slow to materialise and deliveries of aid not fast enough, Boucher ticked off a string of relief flights and declared: “Any implication we are not leading the way is wrong.”
Pledges of US assistance remained at $35m (€25.7m), although Powell said the figure is “just a beginning.”
“It’s going to take a lot more,” Powell said. “This is the time to make sure that we get a good needs assessment.”
The Pentagon is also spending millions on relief, but that figure could not be calculated quickly. The relief included the arrival of four C-130 cargo planes in Thailand loaded with food, water and sheltering material, and a large supply of rice and other food and assistance was due to arrive in Indonesia today.
Several European countries far outdistanced the United States in pledges. They include Britain’s £50m (€70.6m) pledge.
And the World Bank announced it would make $250m (€183.4m) available as an initial contribution for emergency reconstruction. The amount is for the next six months.
With the global death toll rising above 117,000, European governments discussed holding an international donors conference on January 7.
Boucher said the United States would participate in any such gathering, but he did not give details.
Powell, visiting the Embassy of Thailand to extend condolences, vowed that the administration would follow through on promises of substantial financial assistance.
“You can be sure that the president is determined to do what is necessary to deal with this challenge,” he said. “We’re working very closely with the international community.”