BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Not even wartime combat could prepare him for the shock of the tsunami devastation, Secretary of State Colin Powell said after inspecting the Indonesian island of Sumatra where giant waves washed away whole neighborhoods.
From a helicopter a few hundred feet above the ground, Powell could see a muddy brown moonscape Wednesday where blocks of houses and rice paddies had been.
Blackened stumps of palm trees stuck out of the muck. Trees were uprooted and strewn about. Outlines of streets were visible, the houses smashed to bits or washed away.
"I cannot begin to imagine the horror that went through the families and all of the people who heard this noise coming and then had their lives snuffed out by this wave," Powell said. "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."
Powell, commenting after a 30-minute helicopter tour, said, "I’ve been in war and I’ve been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this."
A little inland, shells of houses and other buildings stood in new lagoons of smelly black water. A large commercial ship rested on its side.
There were no corpses visible from the U.S. Navy SH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Thousands of bodies have been recovered 10 days after the disaster. Others washed out to sea or were buried deeply in mud or debris.
The Aceh coastline was one of the areas hardest hit by the huge wave that struck 12 countries on Dec. 26.
Powell promised continued U.S. aid and support to recover from the disaster. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who along with Powell is leading the U.S. delegation, looked shaken Wednesday.
"It is with a heavy heart that we’re here," the governor said.
Recovery is slow. An estimated 80 percent of local officials were killed in Banda Aceh, and fighting between government forces and Aceh’s separatist rebels shut down the main supply road for several hours this week, said Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
A collision between a relief plane and a water buffalo closed the Aceh airport for part of the day Tuesday.
The United States is helping bring rice, soybeans and water-purification kits, Natsios said. A longtime veteran of disasters around the world, Natsios said he, too, was stunned by the extent of the damage.
"It almost looked like a small nuclear bomb hit the country," Natsios said.
From the helicopters, Powell’s entourage could see the stark high water mark etched on inland hills. Water that poured over the flatlands scoured the base of the usually green hills, but left the tops untouched.
The few people visible walked or rode scooters on an inland road or picked through debris.
The death toll for all countries is estimated about 150,000. The toll of people from the United States killed by the tsunami is now 36 – 20 announced as presumed dead by the State Department Wednesday in addition to 16 confirmed earlier – and the number is expected to rise. The department has a running list of thousands of names of people from the United States who are unaccounted for, "but that does not mean that they are casualties or that they are lost," Powell said.
The list, compiled from inquiries made by family and friends of potentially missing people, includes many people who were never in danger and others who escaped harm but have not yet been crossed off the list.
Powell will represent the United States at a conference Thursday in Jakarta to coordinate aid to the damaged countries. He has announced no new commitment of U.S. money during his four-day visit to Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, although the current pledge of $350 million is expected to rise at some point.