WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military accelerated one of its biggest disaster-relief efforts in decades yesterday as President Bush declared that the South Asian earthquake and tsunamis had "brought loss and grief to the world that is beyond our comprehension."
With top U.S. and Red Cross officials predicting that the death toll from Sunday's disaster would climb beyond 100,000, Bush announced that the United States, India, Australia and Japan would coordinate relief efforts and said the United States' pledge of $35 million in aid was "only the beginning of our help."
Bush and other officials sought to make clear the full scale of U.S. relief efforts after criticism of "stingy" rich countries by a United Nations official and questions from the news media about why the president had not spoken publicly about the disaster until yesterday.
His silence had drawn criticism from foreign-policy specialists who noted that the United States could be missing an opportunity to improve its standing in the world, especially in Asia.
The military response comprises 16 ships, 17 winged aircraft, about 25 helicopters and an estimated 15,000 Marines and sailors, according to a spokesman for the Pacific Command.
Many of the vessels could take up to a week to reach the stricken region. But Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two ships were newly added to the response fleet, leaving from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, that will arrive four or five days after their departure.
The U.S. ships will carry -- among other supplies -- a 500-bed hospital, tents, food and bottled water, along with the means to produce tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water daily, officials said. Meanwhile, they said, surveillance aircraft were in the air over damaged sites.
"I can't recall in my lifetime ever seeing so vast a response by the U.S. military to one disaster," said Marine Maj. Guillermo Canedo, spokesman for the Pacific Command. But he said the "tyranny of distance" to be traveled would delay the full response.
Whether all these vessels and planes are to be used will depend on assessments under way, the willingness of South Asian countries to receive help and what aid is being dispatched by other nations, officials cautioned.
Gauging scope of need
Bush, speaking at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, said the initial aid would be followed by help with a long-term rebuilding effort.
"We're still in the stage of immediate help. But slowly but surely, the size of the problem will become known, particularly when it comes to rebuilding infrastructure and community to help these affected parts of the world get back up on their feet," he said. "This has been a terrible disaster. I mean, it's just beyond our comprehension to think about how many lives have been lost."
Bush waded into the dispute sparked Monday by Jan Egeland, the United Nations' relief coordinator, who said, "It is beyond me ... why are we so stingy, really" when it comes to rich countries aiding the developing world.
Egeland was referring to the failure by several major donor countries to meet international goals for development assistance to poor countries. He did not single out any country by name.
Although the United States spends billions of dollars annually on foreign aid, it falls close to the bottom of donor countries when its aid is measured as a proportion of its economy. The most recent figures put foreign aid at 0.15 percent of total U.S. national income.
"I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed," Bush said yesterday when asked to respond to Egeland's criticism, noting that the United States had spent $2.4 billion in disaster relief last year. "We're a very generous, kind-hearted nation, and, you know, what you're beginning to see is a typical response from America."
The United States pledged $15 million Monday, then raised that amount by $20 million Tuesday as other countries stepped up their pledges.
Officials said the changing figures followed the usual pattern of response to major disaster: First, U.S. embassies dip into their funds to meet immediate needs; then disaster teams are dispatched to assess broader requirements.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the world will be called on for billions of dollars in long-term reconstruction help. Aid officials say that while countries often react generously immediately after a major disaster that generates a great deal of world attention, they are often slow to provide money needed later to rebuild stricken towns, villages and roads.
Bush and other officials noted yesterday that the United States is a leader in private charitable contributions, by American individuals and corporations.
Until yesterday, Bush had left America's public response to the tsunami disaster to subordinates, such as Powell and the top U.S. foreign aid official, Andrew Natsios, while remaining out of sight on his Texas ranch.