It was one of the few moments of light relief in what has otherwise been a week of heart-rending loss, ghoulish encounters with death and heroic self-sacrifice. The scene was Phuket’s town hall, which has become the polyglot headquarters of the huge international operation to recover bodies and support the survivors of last week’s tsunami.
The stage was set by dogs that checked the building for explosives and Secret Service agents, easily identifiable by the wires coiling down from their earpieces as they cased every room several hours before the principal U.S. actors arrived to seize the international limelight.
The comedy was provided by the visiting governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, who might reasonably have expected at least a celebrity’s welcome, if not a hero’s. But even though he is the brother of the most powerful man on Earth and came bearing news of a $350 million U.S. contribution to the $2.5bn international relief effort, nobody seemed to know who he was.
“Who are you?” asked one slightly bemused Australian consular official as the large-girthed U.S. stranger pumped his hand.
“I’m Jeb Bush.”
“Oh, are you a relative of the president?” said the interlocutor, jokingly.
“Yes I am. I am his little brother.”
“Oh,” came the reply. “Good for you.”
The confusion was understandable.
The volunteers at the visitors center in the town hall have been working long hours in fraught circumstances for more than a week. Bush was just one of a long stream of visitors who have come through the doors on life-and-death missions. This room — where 36 countries have a desk, each marked with its own flag or sign — is the first port of call for families of the missing, who come here to find translators, accommodation and advice. It is around here that they give DNA samples, pin up missing-persons notices and check through the lists of casualties at hospitals and morgues. This location is also the rallying point for the army of volunteers who have flown in from around the world to offer their services as doctors, counselors, builders and morticians.
Jeb Bush was not the only senior U.S. official who appeared to feel awkward. Secretary of State Colin Powell came close to damaging his reputation as the Bush administration’s leading diplomat when he walked into the room, strolled to the U.S. desk, shook the hands of the people working there and then walked straight back out again. It was only when he was downstairs that an aide suggested he “might like” to meet the volunteers from some of the other countries, too. Reminded that he is part of an international relief mission, Powell promptly turned on his heels once again and marched back up the stairs to belatedly press some non-American flesh.
Bush, who was chosen as a U.S. representative in part because his own state of Florida was hit by four powerful hurricanes last year, conceded that the destruction caused by the tsunami was far worse. “We had nothing compared to that,” he said. “When you have 150,000 people who died over 11 countries, that goes way beyond what anybody’s experienced in our own country.”
But he and Powell will have to wait until they get to Indonesia to see the damage firsthand. In Thailand, they did not visit any of the worst-hit areas. “We did not want to get in the way of relief work,” Bush said.
Powell and Bush were among the first leading political figures to visit the disaster area, and they were able to boast a speedy and large contribution. As well as cash, the U.S. government has provided 12,600 military personnel, 20 U.S. naval vessels and 80 military aircraft. It also plans to double to about 90 the number of helicopters being provided, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command said Tuesday.
Thailand — which has offered to serve as the hub for that operation — has also asked the U.S. to supply body bags, and provide support for environmental reconstruction of damaged coral reefs in the Andaman Sea, assistance with the huge problem of victim identification and technological expertise in setting up a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean.
Powell said the tsunami was a tragedy for the world, but he said donations would not be as great as those used to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. “The United States will certainly not turn away from those in desperate need,” he said, adding: “I don’t think it needs something on the scale of the Marshall Plan.” After landing in Jakarta, Indonesia, on the next leg of his tour, Powell said he hoped American efforts to help in the region would also help Muslim nations see the U.S. in a better light, and give the rest of the world “an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action.”
In a TV interview in Thailand, Powell again rejected criticism of the U.S. response as being slow. “Who criticized us? It wasn’t the countries in the region,” he said. “So I don’t accept the criticism that some in the media have given to the United States that we were slow.”
The financing and organization of the reconstruction effort will be discussed by regional leaders and diplomats at two international conferences over the next two weeks. At the first in Jakarta Wednesday, Powell will be joined by Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi — whose country’s $500 million pledge makes it the biggest contributor so far — along with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and international banking officials. [On Wednesday, surpassing Japan, Germany pledged $674 million and Australia $765 million in long-term aid.] The second is scheduled for Geneva on Jan. 11. Ahead of these meetings, senior diplomats are flying into the disaster zone to assess the damage.
Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, also visited Phuket town hall Tuesday, before flying to Jakarta. Australia is setting up a military hospital in Sumatra and using a fleet of cargo planes to ferry supplies to survivors. “The focus of the discussion in Jakarta on Thursday will be the salvation of those communities,” Downer said.