Local government officials warned the death toll could still rise dramatically as they continue to find bodies.
Government leaders in the region have appealed to the outside world for aid. Individual nations and international relief organizations have begun the daunting task of sending help to stricken areas. The United Nations announced that “many billions of dollars” would be needed to deal with the disaster.
“An enormous relief effort is underway,” Jan Egeland, the U.N. head relief official, said in New York on Tuesday. “We may only know the full extent of this tremendous emergency in weeks from now.”
The hardest hit areas are struggling to cope with the number of dead. Reports from the region said makeshift morgues have been set up in many areas while in others relief workers are simply stacking the bodies in central locations. Bodies reportedly continue to wash up on shore.
One of the issues facing relief and government agencies remains communicating with hard-hit areas. Some island communities remain completely cutoff from the mainland.
The Sri Lankan government has waived the requirement of an autopsy before burial. The Associated Press reported that some Sri Lankans are digging graves for family members with their bare hands.
Egeland said the United Nations will work with local medical officials in an effort to quickly bury dead bodies and animal carcasses before they contaminate drinking water supplies.
Many areas are already without potable water and their sanitation systems have been destroyed. Egeland and other officials also said relief workers are preparing for a “second wave” of destruction that will result from disease.
“There is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami,” World Health Organization official Dr. David Nabarro warned.
The disaster has already resulted in millions of hungry, homeless people. Reports from Indonesia Tuesday said people in island communities had turned to looting in order to find food.
The earthquake, which occurred some 6 miles below the ocean floor near the island of Sumatra, touched off waves that traveled thousands of miles and brought destruction to a huge swath of coast from Malaysia to Somalia.
The number of reported dead from individual countries continued to rise throughout the day Tuesday. Indonesia has reported the largest death toll at press time, saying 27,174 had died and another 1,700 were still missing. Parts of Sri Lanka and India were also devastated, with at least 19,000 dead in Sri Lanka and another 12,000 in India.
Geologists and oceanographers said many of the affected areas had never experienced tsunamis — gigantic waves caused by earthquakes beneath the ocean floor.
“The scale of the tragedy is massive,” the president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, told the BBC. “Sri Lanka has never been hit by tidal waves or earthquakes or anything at all in its known history, so this is a grave tragedy which we have not been prepared for.”
The U.S. government dispatched relief teams and patrol aircraft to the region and promised an initial $15 million in assistance.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Monday that the United States “will be a leading partner in one of the most significant relief, rescue and recovery challenges the world has ever known.”
Other nations have sent aid and promised to send more. Food and medical shipments had begun arriving in some affected areas on Tuesday.
Louis Michel, the European Union commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid, urged that a major donor conference be held in order to raise relief money for the relief effort.