Secretary of State Colin Powell faced the unimaginable destruction of Asia’s tsunami horror on Wednesday as his helicopter swooped low over a razed coast now a graveyard for thousands.
As a former soldier Powell has been to war and witnessed the destruction man can inflict on man, but here on the tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, where 90,000 died, he saw the power of nature to wipe man from the face of the earth.
“I have been in war and I have been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this,” said Powell after a 30-minute flight over parts of devastated Aceh province on Sumatra island.
Sitting at the open-door of a U.S. Seahawk helicopter with President Bush’s brother Jeb Bush by his side, Powell saw a flattened and broken landscape where once there were city blocks of houses and thousands of families leading busy lives.
Along what appeared to be the former coastal highway, chunks of the pavement were ripped away in places. Other parts were buried in mud and dirt.
Powell saw hundreds of palm trees uprooted and scattered like matchsticks by giant walls of water that crashed ashore on Dec. 26 from a massive undersea earthquake, which also sent a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, killing 150,000 across Asia.
Along the shoreline there were blackened stumps of the trees snapped off by the wave, standing like battered, makeshift timber tombstones where people were washed out to sea.
“I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave,” Powell told a brief news conference in Banda Aceh before flying to Jakarta to attend an emergency one-day tsunami aid conference on Thursday.
Powell was in awe of the power of the tsunami which swept away everything in its path — homes, ships, cars and lives — only stopping when it washed up against the city’s foothills.
“The power of the wave to destroy bridges, to destroy factories, to destroy homes, to destroy crops, to destroy everything in its path is amazing,” he told reporters.
An obviously emotional Florida Governor Jeb Bush pledged the U.S. government and its people would help tsunami victims in Indonesia until their lives were rebuilt.
“Our hearts go out to the people, the families, who have lost loved ones,” said Bush, touring tsunami-hit areas of Asia with Powell.
“To our friends from Indonesia our hearts are with you and we will be with you in the long haul.”
As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush has had to deal with several natural disasters, including last year when his state was hit with four destructive hurricanes in a six-week period.
The United States has promised $350 million in aid as part of a global $2.3 billion relief effort, the biggest humanitarian operation since World War II.
The U.S. military is at the forefront of the relief operation with a flotilla of naval ships, spearheaded by the aircraft career USS Abraham Lincoln, and dozens of military aircraft ferry emergency supplies into Banda Aceh and elsewhere.
Powell on Wednesday promised Washington would send more helicopters — the workhorses most needed by aid groups to deliver medicines, food and clean water to isolated survivors. Indonesia says nearly 500,000 of its people in the northern Aceh province are now homeless, while the United Nations estimates 1.5 million across Asia.
“Only by seeing it in person from a helicopter flying low over the city can there be a real appreciation of what it must have been like when the tsunami came through and caused so much destruction,” Powell said.
“I have never seen anything like it in my experience and I have a much better understanding now of what it would take to complete the recovery effort and to help these people rebuild their lives and their homes and their businesses,” he said.