Interview: Sri Lankan Ambassador and Oxfam Relief Official

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," Dec. 27, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, GUEST HOST: We continue now with tonight's lead story, the killer tsunamis in southern Asia. Officials in Asia are now admitting they failed to issue public warnings following the undersea earthquake. Such warnings could have saved countless lives from the subsequent killer waves that smashed into coastlines in nine countries.

Sri Lanka (search) appears to be the hardest hit. More than 12,000 people dead there, including at least five Americans. And as we just heard, maybe as many as 18,000 additional still missing.

Thousands of soldiers and families are headed there now searching for bodies and the country is now bracing for possible humanitarian problems due to dysentery (search) and other diseases.

Joining us now from Washington, the Sri Lankan ambassador, Devinda Subasinghe. And from Boston to talk about the relief effort is Michael Delaney, the director of Oxfam's Humanitarian Response department.

Ambassador Subasinghe, as we just heard from Adam Housley, the U.S. Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu did issue an advisory to 26 participating countries. India was not included. Was Sri Lanka? Did Sri Lanka get a warning? And did Sri Lankan officials ignore that warning?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE, SRI LANKA AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: John, thank you for having me over. I have not established that. In fact, I'm awaiting a call from the folks in Honolulu to communicate to them to the best of what I'm aware of now. The — there was no warning that we had received, but I would need further time to research that matter.

GIBSON: OK, now we also heard from one of the relief workers in Sri Lanka right now that in addition — as he put it, and perhaps you have some additional information, 12,000 are thought to be dead, but another 18,000 are missing. Do you think that that really is a number that could approach 30,000 dead in your country?

SUBASINGHE: John, potentially yes. About 70 percent of the coastline of Sri Lanka, which is the size of West Virginia, has been impacted to varying degrees. The southern coast that was described to you is populated, as well as carrying the tourism infrastructure. And I believe those numbers are climbing. And at this stage, I cannot put any specificity to it until the military and civilian teams have gone through those areas and conducted both the search and rescue and the recovery operations.

GIBSON: Mr. Ambassador, let me just turn to Michael Delaney for a moment.


GIBSON: Michael, a relief effort here is underway. Obviously, the health situation, dysentery, cholera, and the rest is a big concern. What can you tell me about what's going on to help the people in Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia?

MICHAEL DELANEY, OXFAM HUMANITARIAN, DIRECTOR: Yes, that's the first thing that we're concerned about at this point is the issue of water. We're trying to get water to people who need it. With the wave and the flooding coming in, a lot of the water that people use for drinking has been contaminated. And so, we're trying to make sure that people have clean water, access to clean water, and distributing that.

We have a network of people, along with our Oxfam (search) staff, who are there already, have a network of people that we work with, including local authorities, local organizations, doing the assessments and determining where the needs are and trying to help people at this time of need.

GIBSON: Do you know what the United States has volunteered to help with?

DELANEY: Well, initially there's been support of money to a number of different countries, including Sri Lanka. This is generally — it's a round of money that is issued by the local ambassadors. And then at a later time, an amount will be determined by USAID and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which will be much larger.

GIBSON: Ambassador Subasinghe, I'm sure you've heard about this 500 mile an hour wave or multiple waves. And maybe you've even heard some eyewitness accounts. We've obviously seen the pictures of the damage. We see the numbers of people dead. But from what you have heard from people there, what was it like?

SUBASINGHE: I think that gentleman that you had on the telephone conversation was pretty much accurate where people literally were on the oceanfront watching this — the water go back out or the tide go back out before that wave came bundling in. And as the gentleman mentioned, this is not a phenomenon we've ever witnessed in Sri Lanka.

And I'm sure it was largely driven by curiosity, because people are describing to me how rock formations and other underwater areas were suddenly revealed when the water went out before that wave came crashing back.

I don't think anybody knew what was going on. We've seen monsoon rains dumping a lot of high waves onto our beaches, but this water going out and the phenomenon of a tsunami is not something we've ever witnessed in Sri Lanka.

GIBSON: Ambassador Subasinghe, good luck to you and your country. And Michael Delaney, I know you're doing good work. And I appreciate you coming on tonight. Thank you both.

SUBASINGHE: Thank you, John. And thank you also to the U.S. administration for all the support we've received.

GIBSON: Sure, ambassador, thank you.

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