ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN -- Helicopters from this US Navy aircraft carrier flew repeated relief missions along the nearby shoreline of Indonesia yesterday, delivering food, water, and medical supplies to thousands of survivors stranded along the western coast of Aceh Province after last week's devastating tsunamis.
Crew members returned from the second day of relief efforts with reports that the helicopters have been mobbed by residents who in some cases tried to climb aboard and get a ride out. In many places, the Americans found that the towns and villages suffered huge casualties: In Meulaboh, about 100 miles south of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, only 1,000 people survived out of a population of 60,000, said the Lincoln's skipper, Captain Kendall Card.
American naval officers set up a command post in Banda Aceh to coordinate US flights in the province, in a level of cooperation between the two countries' militaries rarely seen in recent years.
"This is the largest natural disaster of my lifetime, and it changes the rule set," Rear Admiral Doug Crowder, commander of the carrier group that includes the Lincoln, said yesterday aboard the ship. "It can't help but be positive, in my view."
After a week of climbing death tolls and tales of devastation from the Indian Ocean region, where an estimated 150,000 lives were lost in the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis, the coordinator of UN emergency relief efforts said yesterday that backlogged supplies were beginning to reach afflicted areas.
"Good news is coming in by the hour," coordinator Jan Egeland said.
But he warned that it might take three more days to establish food distribution centers in Sri Lanka and longer for Indonesia's most distant areas. Meanwhile, UN agencies are dropping emergency supplies by helicopter to isolated villages in both nations, which sustained the greatest damage in the disaster.
Governments around the world have pledged nearly $2 billion toward relief efforts, backed up by contributions and efforts by private organizations, and emergency supplies have been flowing to airports and warehouses in the region. The effort to get supplies to the people most in need has been slowed by damaged roads, shattered infrastructure, and lack of aircraft.
Egeland said that an estimated 1.8 million people needed food, including 100,000 people in the east African nation of Somalia at the farthest reaches of the tidal wave's destruction, and that the United Nations would be able to reach most of them.
"Overall, I am more optimistic today than I was yesterday, and especially the day before yesterday, that the global community will be able to face up to this enormous challenge," Egeland said at a news briefing at UN headquarters in New York. "The international system is working."
In Sri Lanka, many more aid trucks were seen yesterday than just a few days before on the main coastal highway heading from the capital, Colombo, to refugee camps and disaster sites in the south. Many carried makeshift mourning flags and hand-painted signs on their grilles advertising their affiliation.
Aircraft continue to arrive in Colombo from around the world, and people lined the highway in clumps along some stretches waiting for supplies to be dropped off.
But despite the progress, aid workers and victims protested that shortages and distribution problems remained significant.
"The government is still locked in meetings," said one aid worker who requested anonymity. "We're a week into it. How many died in that time because of these delays?"
Critics said the Sri Lankan government continues to insist that all medical aid be routed through its offices, creating delays, and it has reluctantly lifted import taxes on medicines destined for the victims.
In the Indonesian city of Medan, meanwhile, a heap of rice, instant noodles, crackers, and bottled water sat at a military airfield waiting for shipment to Banda Aceh, about an hour's flight to the north. Operations were slowed by the physical constraints of the airport and infrastructure, the lack of coordination, and the problems with communications.
Major Dwight Neeley of the US Marines could only scratch his head when he saw a C-130 land at the adjacent commercial airport, far from the cargo and supplies at the military base. Making matters worse, he said, there were not enough pallets available, so food and supplies would have to be hauled across the airfield and then loaded manually.
The Lincoln, with a crew of 6,000, has deployed at least 10 of its 17 helicopters to pick up aid supplies in Banda Aceh and carry them down the coast to tsunami victims. It also has sent ashore medical teams and advanced teams to coordinate other forms of aid the carrier could provide.
Officers say the sailors aboard the carrier are eager to help the people of Aceh Province, and 1,300 crew members have volunteered to go ashore, including plumbers, welders, electricians, and other craftsmen who could help repair infrastructure. But so far, only 20 sailors have gone ashore on advance teams to negotiate how the volunteers might be deployed.
"This is a disaster of worldwide proportions," said Captain David Lausman, the Lincoln's executive officer. "We all want to do the right thing and help. We are here until we are not needed anymore."
The Lincoln, which had been docked in Hong Kong on Christmas, was scheduled to head north. But after the tsunamis, it set course instead for the Indian Ocean. The carrier traveled 2,000 miles in 3 days and arrived off the coast of Aceh on Jan. 1.
The Indonesian military acknowledges it has little choice but to rely on other nations for help.