UN agencies swing into action with relief missions after Indonesian quake

29 March 2005

United Nations agencies sprang into action today in Indonesia after last night’s undersea earthquake, sending observation helicopters and boats with relief supplies to islands off the coast of Sumatra, where preliminary reports described the situation as serious with many injured and dead and people buried under tons of rubble.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has already delivered 580 kilos of medical supplies to the island of Nias, one of the worst-hit areas, a search and rescue team is on the ground and medical evacuations are underway, the deputy UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Banda Aceh on Sumatra, Masood Hyder, told a news briefing.

“Based on their preliminary assessment, they report many injured and dead in the main city of Gunung Sitoli,” he said. “Most injuries are broken bones and wounds inflicted by falling masonry. We have no definitive figures on casualties as our teams have not yet moved beyond the location, but they have already requested large quantities of tents, emergency food and facilities for medical evacuation.”

Medical evacuations have begun and 500 tents are on their way, he added. There had been 14 aftershocks on Nias, some 100 buildings had been destroyed and the priority for the moment was the evacuation of the most seriously injured and the search for those buried under the rubble.

A UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) boat with tents, emergency relief materials and additional personnel has already arrived in neighbouring Simeulue, an island with nearly 80,000 inhabitants including 18,000 people displaced by December’s devastating tsunami, where the agency already had an active presence.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has sent two teams to Nias and one to Simeulue to evaluate the damage. The agency has enough food and other relief materials available on Sumatra to respond to the emergency on the two islands where it had already provided aid to 24,000 victims of the 26 December tsunami.

In total, WFP has provided aid to some 500,000 people in Indonesia since that tsunami, which hit Sumatra hardest in a disaster that killed more than 200,000 people and left up to 5 million in need of basic services in a dozen Indian Ocean countries.

In a statement issued by his spokesman Secretary-General Kofi Annan pledged UN support for the people of Indonesia "at this difficult hour," as well as readiness to help with reconstruction efforts.

At dawn today, two helicopters with advance interagency missions left for the islands, along with a helicopter from the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), to evaluate the need, if requested by the Indonesian Government, for a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team.

Such a stand-by team of disaster management professionals could be deployed within hours to carry out rapid assessment of priority needs. Twenty search and rescue teams are on standby in the region, ready to be deployed if requested assistance. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with the support of WFP, has coordinated a meeting with humanitarian relief partners, including UNICEF and non-government organizations (NGOs) such as Concern and CARE, to prepare the necessary actions.

"The UN and all its agencies are pleased they have been able to move so fast to assist with this earthquake," Mr. Hyder said. "We have the resources: the challenge is now their efficient and swift disposal."

There are currently 1,000 international staff and 250 international organizations on the ground in Sumatra from the relief operations mounted for the previous tsunami disaster.

John Harding, of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), told a news briefing in Geneva that readings indicated that there would not be another large tsunami from this quake. In December it was the tsunami, and not the quake that caused the giant waves, which proved most lethal.


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