Aid teams from around the world rushed to southern Asian countries devastated by tidal waves, warning that anything less than an urgent response would add many more deaths to the already catastrophic toll.

Pope John Paul II urged the international community to help after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake Sunday off the Indonesian island of Sumatra (search) — the largest in 40 years — triggered tidal waves up to 20 feet high that obliterated villages and seaside resorts in eight countries.

He said the "enormous tragedy" had saddened the Christmas holiday.

The International Red Cross (search) in Geneva appealed for donations in cash, relief goods or services.

"We are in for a big emergency disaster response, and we will be at it for many months to come," said David Alexander, international director of the British Red Cross.

The United Nations sent disaster relief experts to the region and said it would give emergency cash grants to governments for immediate humanitarian needs — portable sanitation facilities, medical supplies, tents and helicopters for evacuation of people.

Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam (search), warned that without swift action, more people could die in the aftermath.

"The flood waters will have contaminated drinking water and food will be scarce," she said.

Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India were hardest hit — with thousands of deaths in each country and widespread destruction. Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh also reported deaths.

On Monday, Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer pledged $7.7 million to international aid agencies.

Japan sent a 21-person disaster relief team, including doctors and nurses, to Sri Lanka with medical supplies, drinking water and tents capable of accommodating up to 1,000 people, the Foreign Ministry said.

China was preparing to dispatch to Indonesia a team of more than 40 experts for relief and rescue work, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

In Britain, three charities — Save the Children (search), World Vision (search) and Christian Aid (search) — were flying out teams to help workers already in Sri Lanka and India and sending money to region.

"For all the huge advances in the control of our lives through science and technology, an earthquake on this scale is truly humbling as well as profoundly tragic," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Save the Children said it was mobilizing response teams and had started coordinating with aid agencies to provide relief supplies.

"We are urging the American public to assist us in this critical effort," said Rudy Von Bernuth, who is coordinating Save the Children's emergency response effort to the region.

The Italian Foreign Ministry's crisis unit was coordinating EU aid efforts. The 25-nation EU will deliver $4 million in emergency aid as a start, and Italy, Sweden, Germany, France and Britain were sending teams of technical experts and rescue workers.

"We are doing all we can to offer practical help and support," said Britain's International Development Secretary Hilary Benn.

In Austria, relief officials and charities such as Caritas (search) and Volkshilfe (search) made urgent appeals for cash donations.

"Once people are safe, they must be provided with meals, blankets and a roof over their heads," said Franz-Karl Prueller, head of Caritas' Austria operation.

The Dutch Red Cross was flying in blankets, tents and medicine, with priority going to Sri Lanka, said Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Esther van Damme.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II said she was "deeply saddened to learn of the dreadful situation" and offered her sympathy, as did the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix and Russian President Vladimir Putin.