The death toll from Aceh alone may now reach 400,000, according to Indonesia's Ambassador to Malaysia Drs H. Rusdihardjo:
He said the estimate was based on air surveillance by Indonesian authorities who found no signs of life in places like Meulaboh, Pulau Simeulue and Tapak Tuan while several islands off the west coast of Sumatera had "disappeared".
He said the latest death toll of more than 40,000 in Acheh and northern Sumatera did not take into account the figures from the other areas, especially in the west of the region.
"Aerial surveillance found the town of Meulaboh completely destroyed with only one buiding standing. The building, which belonged to the military, happens to be on a hill," he told reporters after receiving RM1 million in aid for Indonesia's Tsunami Disaster Relief Fund here Thursday.
Rusdihardjo said there were about 150,000 residents in Meulaboh, which was located 150km from the epicentre of the earthquake while Pulau Simeuleu had a population of 76,000.
The inexorable rise in the death toll reflects one of the most pervasive features of this whole tragedy: the way that the full enormity of the disaster has taken so long to sink in. The Swedish government's response is fairly typical: "we didn't fully understand the scale of how many people would be injured and dead." I was certainly guilty of this: my first post was almost light-hearted, complaining about the poor quality of the footage we were seeing. I had the excuse that I'd just received word from my son in Thailand that he was safe: a colossal relief of course, but looking back I never really expected it to be otherwise. It seemed like just a handful of tourists had been caught. Now, well, I read about the father who flew out to look for his son, in time to identify the body....
I wonder if there's not some kind of protective mechanism at work here. It's the sheer excitement of it - the awe-inspiring vision of nature doing its worst - that grabs you at first. Wow, you think, just look at the power of that. I'm sure something similar would have been the response of many of those who saw the waves approaching: before self-preservation kicks in and you run like hell, there's an overwhelming urge just to stand and gawp in amazement, like the tourists in the series of pictures in the Times today, from Hat Rai Lay Beach, near Krabi in southern Thailand (I can only find one on line - no. 16 in the picture gallery "pictures of the disaster" from the Times front page). Some are running, but some are just staring, transfixed, in awe.
Update: that same photo - which in the Times print edition is the third of three - features here, in the blog of an American in Phuket describing what happened when the tsunami hit.