Huge Hurdles

Steve Francone was driving to the southern region of Sri Lanka early Thursday morning to help set up medical camps. "In a lot of these areas," the aid worker tells NEWSWEEK over a satellite phone, "supplies have been lifted in, but they have no distribution channels. They have medical supplies, but no doctors." How do you heal the sick and wounded with medicine but no doctors? How do you send food to the poor without roads? These are familiar riddles for Francone, who says that "the big trucks will come and the aid will be given to areas close to the road. The food isn't going into the more remote areas. They're completely isolated and there's unequal distribution."

In the third day after one of the all-time worst natural disasters, humanitarian groups are absorbing the flood of donation dollars from compassionate donors and struggling to get their relief efforts off the ground. "Obviously, the situation is changing all the time," Sarah Kline, a spokeswoman for Oxfam in England tells NEWSWEEK. With staff already on the ground in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, she says workers are struggling to get into badly hit remote areas. "That will be hugely problematic because the local infrastructure has been destroyed." The relief agency has sent a flight out today with 27 tons of emergency water-purifying equipment to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, but has yet to begin conducting an assessment of needs in India, which she says can be "turned around in a day or two. This is not something we can plan for."

Reports of looting have surfaced in Thailand, as have anecdotes of harassment of volunteers in Sri Lanka. Local food supplies have begun dwindling as international aid piles up at distribution points in Indonesia because of impassable roads. In parts of Sri Lanka, where entire coastal villages have been wiped out, the government is said to have shown little intention of communicating with victims. Fuel is scant everywhere. In one part of Sumatra, a helicopter was unable to land and was forced to drop boxes of food from above.

While they have years of experience and some staff on the ground in many of the hard hit areas, agencies say they simply cannot have been prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. "This is so unexpected, no one can fully be ready," says Lurma Rackley at CARE, an agency that has had a presence in both India and Indonesia for around 50 years. "We have a lot of work to be done, it's enormous."

There has been no shortage of help. Private citizens and corporate entities have been sending money at overwhelming rates. Oxfam reports having raised $2.9 million in three days, with a goal to double that as soon as possible. CARE has raised $3.5 million, and has a donation hotline that pulled in $500,000 in a five-hour span. Save the Children reports having received $1.1 million on its Web site. The International Rescue Committee has received $1.5 million in foundation and corporate giving, not counting Web donations. Indeed, people have been so generous that the websites for major humanitarian groups ranging from Doctors Without Borders to UNICEF have crashed under the overwhelming traffic.

Not everyone has been credited with generosity. President George W. Bush, vacationing in Crawford, Texas, said on Wednesday that the U.S. would pledge $35 million for tsunami victims, but that was only after Jan Egeland, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the administration's initial $15 million donation "stingy." (Engeland subsequently retracted his remark.) Also on Wednesday, the first U.S. military expedition was sent out, bearing food, water and temporary shelter, the three most needed goods in south Asia right now. Also shipped were six Air Force C-130 cargo planes, nine Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and the USS Bonhomme Richard expeditionary carrier strike group.

But is that enough? "The U.S. could describe a three-phase relief effort," says David Phillips a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The first phase dealing with the immediate emergency, providing shelter, water and family reunifications. The second phase would be to address the health implications and mortalities related from water-borne diseases. And the third would be to specifically describe reconstruction efforts. If we convey a commitment to helping the victims over the long haul, it could have a salutary effect. By dribbling out aid, we're not sending a message of understanding, nor are we creating the impression that we are fully seized by the emergency."

But where does private money go once a donor mails a check or clicks "send" on their computer? Most established aid agencies have expedient channels through which their donations flow. But in areas where roads, infrastructure and civic institutions have literally been swept away, often even the best intentions are thwarted: Enoka Herat, a volunteer in Sri Lanka writes in an e-mail to friends that "as we approached a road to a refugee camp we saw the car in front of us get looted and harassed. About 35 men gathered around it, so it couldn't move and they harassed the driver to get the supplies for resale." Looters have reportedly climbed down from higher elevations in Thailand to steal from survivors and relatively well-heeled tourists.

"Unfortunately this is very common because people are in desperate situations suddenly," concedes Bob Laprade, director of emergencies and protection for Save the Children. "For distribution, where you have wheat flour or rice or plastic sheeting, a lot of times what is really important is going in and negotiating with local authorities who are able to make sure it's safe to go in." In events where a police force may be compromised, he says, such authority figures may be the village imam or tribal chief.

Aid groups already been operating in the hardest hit regions are also trying to cope with casualties among their own staff. Two of the IRC's 21 south Asia staff are still missing, according to Michael Kocher, the group's regional director for Indonesia. Of the 19 aid workers whose whereabouts are known, around two-thirds have lost all or most of their material possessions.