With two crucial assets _ helicopters and organizational skills _ the U.S. military is likely to stay on the devastated coast of Indonesia's tsunami-stricken Sumatra island for an extended period, U.S. officers said Sunday.
During the past nine days, U.S. Navy helicopters have rushed food, water and medical supplies to areas that are likely to remain inaccessible and in desperate need for weeks. The monster waves in the Indian Ocean exacted their greatest toll and damage on Sumatra. More than 104,000 Indonesians were killed.
"I don't see an end to this for a long, long time," Capt. Larry Burt said.
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 efforts.
Burt, who commands the air wing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, said the American airlift will be vital until the road down Sumatra's eastern coast can be restored. The waves obliterated bridges and washed out large parts of the road, and there was no other road access to the northeastern coast, Burt said.
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.
But the cruise has been canceled, and the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Kendall L. Card, jokingly announced to the 5,500 personnel 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 Rear Adm. William Crowder, who commands the five-vessel carrier strike group. He declined to speculate when the operation would end.
Crowder said his forces were at the Indonesian military's beck and call. Supplies to be helicoptered out came mainly through USAID, which was also advising him on what supplies to ferry from various nongovernmental organizations.
Some U.S. officers also said there was no coordination among the growing number of nongovernmental organizations, major international organizations and foreign military units.
"It's me walking to them, asking for a helicopter," said Ina Bluemel of the German Red Cross, 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.
At the air base in Banda Aceh, the international aid hub in Sumatra, relief, medical and rescue workers from a dozen nations sat idle in what is becoming a tent city. Others tried to find a niche in the humanitarian effort.
Cartons of food and medical supplies, unloaded from 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.
In sharp contrast, Navy personnel rushed to helicopters landing on a soccer field, forming human chains to speed rice bags into the craft or offloading injured survivors on stretchers to an emergency aid station.
The pilots and crews of the Navy Seahawks flew 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.
Before going ashore for the first time, every crew member was given a briefing that included a scenario of a typical international disaster operation.
"Expect lots of activity, little efficiency," reads one briefing note.
2 hurt in crash
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia _ A U.S. helicopter with 10 people on board crashed in a rice paddy as it was trying to land at the Banda Aceh airport today while on a tsunami-relief operation, injuring at least two U.S. servicemen, a U.S. military spokesman said.
The injured men, along with eight other Navy personnel, were being flown back to their ship in the Lincoln battle group, said Capt. Joe Plenzler, a U.S. military spokesman in Medan, 250 miles southeast of Banda Aceh.
U.S. authorities said there was no indication the helicopter had been shot down.
The helicopter was flying in personnel to the airport from the USS Abraham Lincoln group off the coast of Sumatra, he said.
Quake hits ravaged city
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia _ A strong earthquake shook buildings and sent people scrambling from their homes early today in Banda Aceh, but no injuries or damage were reported in the Indonesian city that was devastated by a severe quake and tsunami two weeks ago.
The magnitude 6.2 temblor struck at 5:13 a.m. off the northern coast of Sumatra island, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Web site.