"Who's organizing the NGOs, I'm not sure. I understand the United Nations was to get them together. Without being critical, I think they are making a nascent attempt at coordination," said Rear Adm. William Crowder, who commands the U.S. presence there.
At the air base in Banda Aceh, many relief, medical and rescue workers from a dozen nations sit unused in what is becoming a tent city.
Cartons of food and medical supplies, unloaded from incoming C-130 transport planes, lay in large piles by the runway, with many water-logged and coming apart from the heavy monsoon downpours of the last two days.
There is no coordination on the ground among the growing number of NGOs, major international organizations and various foreign military units gathered to help tsunami victims in Indonesia, according to some U.S. officers.
In sharp contrast, Navy seaman rush to helicopters landing on a nearby soccer field, forming daisy chains to speed rice bags into the craft or offloading injured survivors on stretchers to an emergency aid station.
On Thursday, the U.N. official coordinating relief efforts on Sumatra, Michael Elmquist,
Crowder said his forces are at the Indonesian military's beck and call. Supplies to be helicoptered out came mainly through USAID, which was also advising him on what aid to ferry from various non-governmental organizations.
Describing what channels she went through to get 10 tons of hospital equipment flown by U.S. helicopters to a German field hospital being set up at Teunam, about 80 miles southeast of Banda Aceh, Ina Bluemel of the German Red Cross said, "It's me walking to them, asking for a helicopter."
The pilots and crews of the Navy Seahawks fly nonstop for hours at a stretch, pausing only to return to the offshore carrier to refuel. At the air base, officers from the ship, some of them F-18 jet pilots temporarily grounded, issued orders and coordinated the steady air traffic.
With two crucial assets in its arsenal — helicopters and organizational skills — the U.S. military is likely to remain on the devastated coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island for an extended period.
"I don't see an end to this for a long, long time," Capt. Larry Burt said of the American presence. "The biggest shortage is still airlift to the coast."
Over the past nine days, U.S. Navy helicopters have rushed food, water and medical supplies to areas which are likely to remain inaccessible and in desperate need for weeks.
Other nations, notably Australia and Indonesia, have added to the emergency air fleet. Indonesian navy vessels are reaching some coastal areas as international aid agencies scurry to mobilize and coordinate.
Burt, who commands the air wing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, said the American airlift would be vital until the road down Sumatra's eastern coast can be restored, a longer-term task given that the giant waves obliterated bridges and long stretches of tarmac.
Burt said there was no other road access to the northeastern coast, which is largely cut off from the rest of Sumatra by a range of rugged mountains.
The helicopter-carrying ship, the centerpiece of the operation, was to have returned to Hawaii at the end of January to pick up family and relatives of the crew for a traditional "Tiger Cruise" back to San Diego, California.
But the cruise has been canceled, and the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Kendall L. Card, jokingly announced to the 5,500 on board that he was starting a pool to guess the return date to home port.
"As long as we're carrying the load that we are carrying, it's important for us to be here," said Crowder. He declined to speculate when the operation would end.