Survivors starve as storms hit tsunami aid

AID boats bringing food and medical equipment to the tsunami-devastated Mentawai islands in Indonesia have been stranded by huge storms.

As the army delivered its first shipment of aid, a massive storm system that has brought high winds and waves up to 5.5m high has led to a complete travel ban in and out of the Mentawais, 160km off the Sumatra coast.

It means the army’s aid shipment, which did not arrive until six days after the October 26 tsunami, is likely to be the last for at least a week.

Smaller aid boats chartered by NGOs, which have been battling steep seas to deliver their cargoes of food and medicine, have also had to call a halt to deliveries from Padang, the nearest coastal city, as at least one boat has been capsized by huge waves.

A police ship that set out on Sunday for an eight-hour trip down the coast to assess the needs of the villagers on South Pagai island, one of the worst affected, took 40 hours to return. Severe weather left it stranded until it was taken into port by a surf charter boat returning from delivering rice to ruined villages late on Monday night.

The Times joined an aid boat taking food, building materials and blankets to villages on South Pagai, but it was forced to turn back after the storm system hit.

Almost every aid worker tells a story about setting off for an easy delivery only to be stranded somewhere for the night.

The tsunami death toll stood at 431, the National Disaster Management Agency said.

Traumatised survivors remain on hillsides above their former homes, sheltering from torrential rain under flimsy structures made of palm leaves and tarpaulin.

Some are beginning to die from septicemia from infected wounds; others are on the verge of starvation, having received no food for days.

Even those whose homes were saved from the full force of the tsunami have been devastated by its aftermath, their crops destroyed along with the roads and bridges that gave them access to the rest of the islands.

At Munteii Besat, on South Pagai, 28-year-old farmer Desai said: “We have our homes but our crops have been destroyed and we have nothing to eat. The boats brought food to other villages but not to us, until now. The helicopters fly above but they see our houses are still here so they go away again.”

The logistical difficulties of finding the villages that are in need and delivering aid to them in the worsening weather conditions have been made worse by looting.

Meanwhile, more than 1300km to the west, Mount Merapi, the Indonesian volcano that has killed 38 people in the past week, continued sending searing gas clouds and burning rocks down its scorched flanks.

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