Powell: 'I've Never Seen Anything Like This'

Published January 05, 2005

| FoxNews.com

Four days into his survey of the tsunami-ravaged Bay of Bengal shoreline, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) on Wednesday still seemed in a state of shock and grief at the devastation he was seeing.

"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," said the retired Army general after a 30-minute helicopter tour over a muddy landscape dotted with crumpled houses and toppled palm trees.

His trip continued as the State Department released new American casualty numbers, concluding that 20 more Americans who were missing after the tsunami are presumed dead, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

Added to the 16 Americans confirmed dead by the State Department — eight in Sri Lanka and eight in Thailand — the 20 missing and presumed dead bring the total U.S. death toll to 36. Of those 20, 19 were in Thailand and one was in Sri Lanka, officials told FOX.

The State Department is still working on thousands of cases of Americans who remain "unaccounted for."

President Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (search), was also touring the Indonesian island of Sumatra, hit Dec. 26 first by a massive earthquake then by the ensuing wave.

The governor has had extensive experience handling natural disasters, most recently a series of powerful hurricanes.

"The relief efforts will subside — it's going to take a while, but it will subside," Jeb Bush told FOX News in an interview. "The recovery effort will take a long-term commitment."

He told FOX News he "started saying the rosary" when he saw one area particularly hard hit by the tsunami.

From an altitude of a few hundred feet, not a standing tree or building was visible along large swaths of coastline. City block after city block had been swept clean. A large ship lay on its side, half submerged in water and mud.

Hills rising beyond the shore showed a stark high-water mark — barren brown land scoured clean below, and then a distinct line with verdant green growth above.

"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," said Powell. "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. "

Before embarking on his early-afternoon helicopter tour, Powell said U.S. money and military assistance to Indonesia, where nearly 100,000 people died, may lessen anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world.

"I hope that as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen by the citizens of Indonesia helping them, that value system of ours will be reinforced," Powell said.

The United States bankrolls humanitarian relief in part "because we believe it is in the best interest of those countries and it's in our best interest," Powell said. "It dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that might give rise to terrorist activity."

"It turns out that the majority of those nations affected were Muslim nations," Powell said. "We'd be doing it regardless of religion, but I think it does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world ... an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action."

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country with 238 million people, had the largest loss of life in the disaster that struck 12 countries around the Indian Ocean. Indonesia is a fledgling democracy and an ally in the Bush administration's war on terrorism, but suspicion of Americans runs deep here.

Islamic militants are blamed for three large bombings in the past two years, including one that killed 12 in the Jakarta hotel where Powell's entourage is staying during a tour of tsunami damage.

Other majority Muslim countries affected include Malaysia, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Somalia, all of which suffered far fewer casualties than Indonesia.

Sri Lanka, with an estimated 30,000 dead, is predominantly Buddhist, as is Thailand, with an estimated 5,000 dead. India, with about 9,500 dead, is mainly Hindu.

The total death toll has reached 140,000 and is expected to go higher.

Before touring the Banda Aceh (search) region of western Sumatra, Powell and his delegation met with Indonesia's foreign minister and inspected American and international relief efforts in Phuket, Thailand, where thousands died in shattered beach resorts popular with Western tourists.

Powell and the governor briefed President Bush by phone after the initial phase of their trip, informing him that the governments of India, Sri Lanka and Thailand appeared to have a "strong capacity" to manage tsunami relief, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in Washington.

However, Powell told the president that the situation was very different in Indonesia.

The province of Aceh and the rest of the western coast of Sumatra took a double hit from the 9.0 undersea earthquake and the huge tsunami it spawned.

Sixteen Americans were confirmed dead in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and an unknown number are missing.

Although the State Department has a list of 4,000 or more Americans who are unaccounted for, officials do not believe that anywhere near that number have died. Many on the list are simply out of touch with family, or may have never been in the affected region, officials said.

Powell will represent the United States at a conference of donor nations and affected countries Thursday.

In Washington, as the new Congress convened, legislators announced plans to introduce a bill that would allow Americans to claim 2004 tax deductions for tsunami-relief donations made through Jan. 31, 2005.

FOX News' Greg Palkot, Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Teri Schultz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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