United Nations relief experts are headed to Sri Lanka to help coordinate the international response to the massive tidal waves that struck the Indian Ocean nation after a series of earthquakes rocked the western coast of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Additional UN emergency staff are being sent to other affected countries to reinforce the world body's capacity to support government response efforts. Immediate humanitarian needs include portable sanitation facilities, medical supplies, tents and helicopters to evacuate people in the crisis spots.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that it will provide initial emergency cash grants to help the affected countries.
"This is the first step in what will surely be a larger United Nations response to catastrophic losses suffered as a result of earthquakes and tidal waves this morning," said UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland.
According to information from the United States Geological Survey, the two strongest earthquakes had the magnitude of 8.9 on the Richter Scale and 7.3 on the Richter Scale. The quakes caused tsunamis - massive tidal waves - impacting several countries in the region. Media reports place the death toll throughout the region at some 7,000 people.
The Government of Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency and requested international assistance. The Maldives Government is also seeking international help.
The UN pledged to work closely with all affected countries in order to help the victims.
"The United Nations stands ready to provide the assistance necessary to meet the needs created by these natural disasters," a spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement released in New York, extending "sincere condolences to the people and governments of the countries affected as they cope with their catastrophic losses."
"The power of this earthquake, and its huge geographical reach, are just staggering," said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Hundreds of thousands of children in coastal communities in six countries may be in serious jeopardy," she said. "We're supporting governments in their damage assessments, and we're prepared to respond wherever help is needed."
All UNICEF offices in the region have been mobilized to support relief efforts. Emergency supplies are on stand-by at the UNICEF global supply hub in Copenhagen and relief flights can be launched at any hour.