Near quake's epicenter, a race to limit devastation

From the city closest to the earthquake's epicenter, halting relief work begins amid tales of survival.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The tsunami came as a gigantic, thundering wall of water upon this small seaside city, destroying buildings, razing villages, sweeping up cars before dumping them hundreds of yards away.

In Meulaboh, where 4,900 out of 40,000 residents are confirmed dead, the city closest to the epicenter of Sunday's quake is being dubbed "ground zero" in Asia's largest disaster in decades, with the death toll now above 125,000. The Indonesian military, which is distributing emergency aid, worries that food could run out here in three days, and disease could strike homeless camps in the city. "Frankly, we're undermanned and overwhelmed," says Lt. Col. Geerhan Lantara, local chief of the government's task force on disaster relief.

Colonel Lantara says the relief authorities are short of everything: food, clean water, tents, and medical supplies. "It's not going well," he says, complaining of vicious fights breaking out among survivors over food-aid packages and drinking water.

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Meulaboh is some 90 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake. Indonesia's official death toll climbed to 79,940 Thursday, but officials said the final figure may be higher. Lantara warned the tally in Meulaboh could reach 10,000 dead.

From the air, the city and its surrounds look as if a bomb has been dropped; the massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami destroyed nearly everything for a mile inland. Cars have been upended and wrapped around trees, a mosque's minaret lies amid the wooden rubble.

Survivors tell of waves that darkened the horizon, sweeping them and everything in the path for more than a mile inland.

Darul Ilmi, a fish trader in his 30s, nurses a broken leg. He says a "giant wave, bigger than a coconut tree," swept him up, tumbling him for miles, inside a displaced house buffeted by the waves.

"It was like being in a blender," says Nur Mustika, a trader, who watched his son drown as he scrambled to safety on a rooftop.

Roniyus, an Indonesian soldier who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name, says he was using a military truck to help families move belongings immediately after the earthquake when he heard a "sound like an explosion." As the waves struck, he scrambled to load the truck with people, before fleeing a destructive wall of water. Mr. Roniyus says that some 300 of his military comrades were swept out to sea.

The Indonesian military has set aside, for now, a 30-year conflict with separatist rebels to concentrate on relief and aid.

Like most of Aceh, Meulaboh has been shut off from foreigners for the past 18 months, due to a conflict between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels. During Thursday's interviews, Indonesian soldiers hovered nervously around th reporter. But several rebels have already surrendered since the disaster, and a prison that housed many captured rebel fighters is ruined, its inmates are gone and presumed dead.

Colonel Lantara says more than 80 percent of the city population was left homeless. He says aid "distribution is the biggest problem." After brawls over food aid, some homeless people complain that the food is being sold in camps at inflated prices to those with cash still in their pockets.

Some signs of normal life could be seen Thursday, with traders selling fish and vegetables in the marketplace. But Lantara estimates that the city only has another two or three day's food supply unless more help arrives.

Mayor Tengku Zulkarnaen says that 80 percent of the city has been destroyed . "We just can't calculate the damage," he says. "We're still counting the dead."

With many roads damaged by the earthquake, relief authorities say that they do not know how many in nearby villages have died.

Further south, the island of Simeulue fared much better. Some 30,000 of 70,000 people were camped in the hills, and the confirmed death toll is below 10, according to a pilot who spoke with residents there Thursday. Many villagers remember earthquakes and have been told by their grandparents to "run to the hills" when the ground shakes.

In Meulaboh, government soldiers distributing relief are hoping that teams sent to repair damaged roads cutting off the city will do their job quickly. Setting up basic distribution and communications infrastructure is the most urgent priority to stop the death toll from rising further.

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