But hunger wasn't the only horror: The tsunami's wake had left their homeland crawling with crocodiles.
The discovery of nearly 28,000 newly confirmed dead in remote parts of Indonesia's Sumatra island and other new reports brought the overall death toll to more than 117,000, and experts fear the number of confirmed deaths will continue to rise.
Governments have pledged $500 million in aid to disaster victims so far, said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Aid organizations are expressing particular concern about India's isolated Andaman and Nicobar islands, north of the epicenter of Sunday's devastating quake.
Authorities fear as many as 10,000 more people may be buried in mud and thick vegetation on the Indian island chain, and the International Red Cross says some 30,000 people may be missing. For rescuers searching for bodies in the jungle, the stench of death has been the only guide.
Sister Charity, a 32-year-old nun who was rescued from Hut Bay island by a navy ship on Wednesday, said confused and hungry crocodiles were on the prowl.
"As we were returning (to the ship), two or three crocodiles started coming toward us. The navy officers had to fire their revolvers to ward off the crocodiles to protect us," she said.
The new count brought Indonesia's death toll to around 80,000 — the worst hit nation, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, whose government said it had found 3,500 bodies in one province on Thursday. The total across 11 nations in southern Asia and East Africa was likely to rise, with thousands still missing and fears that disease could bring a new wave of deaths.
Sumatra was closest to the epicenter of last weekend's magnitude 9 earthquake and was overwhelmed by the tsunamis that followed. Some 60 percent of the Banda Aceh, the main city in northern Sumatra was destroyed, the U.N. children's agency estimated, and the island's northwest coast — lined with villages — was inundated.
In Geneva, the U.N. health agency warned that up to five million people in tsunami-struck areas lack access to the basic supplies they need to stay alive, such as clean water, shelter, food, sanitation and health care.
Thursday was not only a day of mourning newly uncovered corpses, it was also one of rampant panic: A false alarm that a new tsunami was about to hit sent tens of thousands of people fleeing homes in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
Because the tsunami washed out the roads along thousands of miles of coastline, the logistics of getting the aid out are "absolutely overwhelming," aid worker Cassandra Nelson told CBS News Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.
In Sri Lanka, where she is working, "The situation is very dire," she said. "People are living in jungles. They're looking for shelter in anything from schools to churches to mosques. Anywhere they can sleep with some coverage and shelter until aid arrives."
Hopes the Ski Lanken government and ethnic-Tamil rebels might find common cause in tragedy soured Thursday during a visit by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse to rebel-held areas in the north.
Villagers were telling the prime minister their problems and what aid they needed when an announcement was made over a loudspeaker urging people not to interact with Rajapakse, said an official with the prime minister's delegation.
After hearing the call, the public got agitated and shouted "Get out ... We don't want your help." Some members of the crowd then picked up wooden poles and hit some journalists and a soldier. Rajapakse and the other ministers were rushed to a nearby military base, officials said.
On Wednesday, Rajapakse said the government would send relief to Tamils in rebel-controlled territory without discrimination and warned that a guerrilla appeal for direct international aid would further split the war-ravaged country.
Meanwhile, an international relief effort unprecedented in scale gathered pace.
Military ships and planes rushed to get desperately needed aid to Sumatra's ravaged coast. Countless corpses strewn on the streets rotted under the tropical sun causing a nearly unbearable stench.
Food drops began along the coast, mostly of instant noodles and medicines, with some of the areas "hard to reach because they are surrounded by cliffs," said Budi Aditutro, head of the government's relief team.
Government institutions in Aceh province, the territory on Sumatra's northern tip, have ceased to function and basic supplies such as fuel have almost run out, forcing even ambulances to ration gasoline.
On the streets of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, fights have broken out over packets of noodles dropped from military vehicles.
The United States, India, Australia and Japan have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts, President Bush announced. The United States later added the United Nations to the group.
Sri Lanka reported 24,700 dead, India more than 7,300 and Thailand around 2,400 — though that country's prime minister said he feared the toll would soar to 7,000. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
Annan said he was "satisfied" with the response of world governments to the quake-tsunami disaster, in response to a question about an earlier comment by Egeland that Western nations are "stingy" in helping developing countries.
"Let me say that in this particular instance the response has been very good," Annan said.
One measure of aid, by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows that none of the world's richest countries donated even 1 percent of its gross national income.
The highest, as of April, was Norway, at 0.92 percent; the lowest was the United States, at 0.14 percent.
Using another measure of aid, President Bush noted Wednesday that the United States provided $2.4 billion "in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. ... That's 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year."