An outpouring of global aid began trickling into Indonesia's stricken villages Sunday, as bulldozers cleared debris-cluttered roads and American helicopters shuttled supplies to desperate survivors of the Asian tsunami disaster, which killed an estimated 150,000 people.
Officials across the Indian Ocean region said bottlenecks that have left boxes of supplies in warehouses with insufficient transport were easing. Aid workers in Indonesia, the nation hardest hit, said critical supplies were finally reaching inland villages that needed them most.
The first naval supply ship arrived on the remote Indian island of Car Nicobar, signaling hope for thousands of stranded and stunned survivors.
A big boost for aid distribution in Indonesia came with the arrival Saturday of the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln — kicking off one of the biggest U.S. military disaster relief missions in history.
"The need is desperate. There is nothing left to speak of," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Vorce as the U.S. relief operation went into its second day with helicopters shuttling between the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and devastated coastal villages on Sumatra.
Americans delivered water, biscuits and other aid to tsunami-shattered communities along Sumatra's coast — but the aid, while welcome, was a mere drop in an ocean of need. In the town of Kuede Teunom, 8,000 of its 18,000 people died. From a low-flying helicopter, the town gave the appearance of skeleton remains.
As the confirmed overall death toll across Asian and African nations passed 123,000 and was predicted by U.N. experts to reach 150,000, the world continued to shower unprecedented compassion on those suffering.
The United Nations estimates international tsunami relief donations now total $2 billion from 40 countries. Japan has made the largest donation: $500 million. The United States has pledged $350 million. The donations top in one week the amount promised to the United Nations in all of 2004.
In Sri Lanka, a World Food Program spokeswoman said she had heard reports of food shortages among survivors due to poor distribution — but not starvation.
"We have tons of food. We are, in fact, inundated," said the spokeswoman, Selvi Sachithanandam. The problem was a "lack of channels" to get the food to quake victims in outlying areas, she said.
The situation was similar in southern India.
"There is no shortage of supplies. Food, water, medicine and clothes are all there in abundance," said Shantha Sheela Nair, secretary of rural development in the battered state of Tamil Nadu.
Problems of distributing aid have prompted the Indian government to set up a network that now requires all agencies to report to it for direction, she said.
Eleven of the 15 villages of Car Nicobar, one of the most secluded of the Andaman and Nicobar keys in the Bay of Bengal, were flattened under the Dec. 26 tsunami. The remaining four suffered extensive damage.
"Entire villages have been washed out," said Indian Army Brig. J.M. Devadoss, relief commander for the island of some 20,000 people, which lies about 185 miles south of Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar chain.
"People rushed with whatever stuff they could pick up, which was not much," he told reporters, who were allowed for the first time in five days to visit the island. "They are being taught how to pitch tents and dig trenches. Latrines have been built. The problem lies with a likely spread of epidemic, which we are trying to control with spraying."
Military planes and government cargo ships reached some three dozen inhabited islands and engineers worked on restoring utilities and telephone service.
The Home Ministry said late Saturday that some 74 million tons of food, 41 million tons of drinking water and 44 million tons of medicines had been airlifted to the tropical islands.
Paramilitary soldiers with dog squads were scouring through miles of battered homes, offices and shops as they looked for bodies decaying under mountains of rubble.
"We have been able to land in most villages" by helicopter, Devadoss said. "Where it was not possible, we are now reaching by road."
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan plans to arrive in Jakarta on Thursday to coordinate aid efforts at an international donors conference in the capital of Indonesia, where the catastrophe claimed at least 80,000 lives.
Needs of disaster victims remain enormous, and relief efforts were still hampered by the destruction of roads, ports and airfields. But, for the first time since the quake and tsunami struck a week ago, humanitarian agencies voiced optimism.
In the shattered Sumatran fishing village of Meulaboh, aid workers set up a refugee camp to distribute boxes of supplies. Five American doctors flew to decimated village from the USS Shoup, as four Indonesian frigates filled with aid docked offshore.
In Banda Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra and a main delivery point for aid, relief centers operated out of tents and passed out boxes of supplies to orderly crowds. Truck convoys delivered goods in steady streams, as planes constantly unloaded aid at the Banda Aceh airport.
"I'm happy to report that we are not having too many difficulties with our distribution," said Heather Hill, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, which passed out 50 tons of rice and eight tons of biscuits and dried noodles in Aceh province on their first day of operation Saturday.
A spokesman for UNICEF, John Budd, said delivery delays were easing and aid continued to pour in, notably from the United States and Australia. He said the agency was already looking ahead, planning to establish 600 schools to serve 120,000 youngsters in quake-hit parts of Sumatra.
Other improvements Saturday included the partial opening of Meulaboh's airstrip, which enabled small planes and helicopters to land with cartons of badly needed relief, said Budd of UNICEF.
Certain debris-clogged roads in previously inaccessible villages were also cleared, he said.
"I don't think there's an issue of starvation," Budd said. "But there's a risk of diseases if we can't resolve water and sanitation issues."