One of the largest US military relief operations in history helped speed the pace of aid to desperate victims of Asia's tsunami disaster on Sunday, delivering critical supplies to haggard survivors in severe need of food and water.
Flying in and out of flattened villages, US helicopters carried water, biscuits and other bare necessities to ravaged Indonesian communities, some of which had been impossible to reach in the week since an earthquake and tsunami ravaged coastlines in Asia and Africa.
Around the devastated Indian Ocean rim, an outpouring of global aid began to reach survivors.
With the total death toll forecast to hit 150,000, the world continued to shower unprecedented compassion on the suffering. The UN said governments and global organizations have pledged about US$2 billion in tsunami disaster relief, a quarter of it from Japan -- the single largest donor so far.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to arrive in Jakarta on Thursday to coordinate aid efforts at an international donors' conference in Indonesia, where the catastrophe claimed at least 80,000 lives.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, also due at the conference, defended the Bush administration's response to what he called one of the world's worst catastrophes.
"It's been seven days and in seven days, we have launched a carrier battle group. We have launched an amphibious battle group. We have contributed US$350 million," Powell said on Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.
The US' initial pledge of US$35 million drew criticism.
Disaster victims' needs remain enormous, and relief efforts were still hampered by the destruction of roads, ports and airfields. The arrival of US warships and helicopters boosted the relief drive and offered a glimpse of the scope of devastation from the Dec. 26 calamity.
"There is nothing left to speak of," said Lieutenant Commander Jeff Vorce, of San Diego, California, among the helicopter pilots flying from the USS Abraham Lincoln to the northern tip of Sumatra, where last Sunday's tsunami took its greatest toll.
The giant aircraft carrier and four other US Navy vessels, crewed by more than 6,500 sailors and Marines, moved into position on Saturday off Indonesia to launch one of the largest US military operations in southern Asia since the Vietnam War.
From a low-flying helicopter, the scene for some 110km down the shoreline from the Aceh provincial capital, Banda Aceh, was that of a veritable skeleton coast.
Villages, one after the next, were obliterated. Concrete bases were all that remained of most structures.
Only a few mosques remained intact, surrounded by wasteland. Thousands of emerald-green rice paddies had been peeled away, replaced by fetid swamps, mangled tree trunks and sea slime.
Americans delivered aid to tsunami-shattered communities along Sumatra's coast. In the town of Kuede Teunom, 8,000 of its 18,000 people died. A few minutes after landing, the helicopter lifted off and another descended. The US military was also sending a flotilla of Marines and water purifying equipment to Sri Lanka.
The aid deliveries were a mere drop in an ocean of need -- but priceless nonetheless, Indonesian military spokesman Ahmad Yani Basuki said.
"They've helped us reach places we have not had the time, or manpower, or equipment to go to," said Basuki, noting that Americans had helped clear helicopter landing spaces for the arrival of future supplies. "It really speeds up the distribution of aid to [Sumatra's] west coast."