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Emergency continues in Indonesian quake zone as US hospital ship arrives
GUNUNG SITOLI, Indonesia (AFP) Apr 04, 2005
A huge US navy hospital ship was due to arrive at Indonesia's Nias island Monday as thousands of people were still in desperate need of help a week after a powerful quake killed hundreds.

As aid agencies warned Nias still needed emergency assistance to recover from the 8.7-magnitude quake off the coast of Sumatra, scores of children headed back to school to find semi-demolished classrooms and missing friends.

Work to pull bodies from the rubble continued despite an ongoing shortage of heavy lifting gear. Police have confirmed more than 600 people dead while the United Nations says the full toll could reach as high as 1,300.

On Nias and the neighbouring island of Simeulue, many people were still too traumatised by repeated aftershocks to return to their homes, sheltering in camps on hillsides and further complicating efforts to deliver assistance.

"The very preliminary figure is that 152,000 people are affected, mainly needing food aid but also other non-food items and sometimes shelter," said United Nations aid coordination spokeswoman Michele Lipner.

UNICEF spokeswoman Lely Djuhari said 15,000 families were homeless on Nias, half of them living in houses with host families and friends and 7,500 without shelters.

Up to 90 percent of Simeulue's 78,000 population was now on higher ground fearing a repeat of the tsunami that struck last year killing 270,000 people around the Indian Ocean, according to the island's senior official Darmili, who uses only one name.

Relief workers said over-burdened medical facilities were seeing an increase in quake-related casualties as people with fractures and wounds from collapsing buildings were joined by others suffering illness and psychological trauma.

UNICEF's Djuhari said 85 percent of health workers from the damaged hospital in the main Nias port of Gunung Sitoli had fled to the hills leaving it barely functional.

She said an old wing of the hospital had been cleaned to use for maternity care after a woman was forced to give birth in the building's reception.

A spokesman for the Australian government's overseas aid programme AusAID on Nias said patient numbers were "expected to peak in the next few days".

Australia has sent a navy supply ship, the HMAS Kanimbla, to help with the aid effort, but operations suffered a setback on Saturday when one of the boat's Sea King helicopters crashed, killing nine military personnel.

The Australians have vowed to continue their mission using landing craft instead of helicopters as Canberra has grounded the military's entire Sea King fleet pending an investigation into the crash in the south of Nias.

Meanwhile, the 1,000-bed USNS Mercy was expected to arrive by nightfall but would not be fully operational for several days as most of its full complement of medics were returning to the ship from the United States.

"We will have one operating room that will be operating 12 hours a day. We will have two ICU (intensive care unit) beds and a total of about five regular beds," said Captain Jim Morrison, deputy surgeon for the US Pacific Fleet.

He said the Mercy, which has been in the region since it was deployed to Indonesia in January to assist in the aftermath of the tsunami, would on Tuesday detour to the mainland Sumatra port of Sibolga to pick up more staff and expand its facilities.

Some of the tonnes of aid directed at Nias since the quake reached the remote village of Lolofitu Moi for the first time Monday when an International Organisation for Migration convoy lumbered up pot-holed roads with rice, cooking oil, water and tents.

"I can't tell you how happy I am to see all this food because I have been eating bananas all week," said 14-year-old Yesmen Halawa, watching the goods being unloaded.

"The last time I ate rice was the day of the earthquake," he said.

Despite the ongoing crisis on Nias, there was an attempt to restore normality for traumatised children as a handful of badly damaged schools reopened on Monday for the first time since the disaster.

At the SMP Negeri 3 High School in Gunung Sitoli one of the first lessons of the day was what to do in case of another earthquake.

"I'm scared of another earthquake but I am happy in school because I want to study," said one pupil, Iman Kalzin.

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