BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- With two crucial assets, helicopters and organizational skills, the US military is likely to stay on the devastated coast of Indonesia's tsunami-stricken Sumatra island for an extended period, US officers said yesterday.
During the past nine days, Navy helicopters have rushed food, water, and medical supplies to areas that are likely to remain inaccessible and in desperate need for weeks.
The monster waves in the Indian Ocean exacted their greatest toll and damage on Sumatra. More than 104,000 Indonesians were killed.
''I don't see an end to this for a long, long time," Captain Larry Burt said. ''The biggest shortage is still airlift to the coast."
Other nations, notably Australia and Indonesia, have added to the emergency air fleet. Indonesian Navy vessels are reaching some coastal areas as international aid agencies scurry to mobilize and coordinate efforts.
Burt, who commands the air wing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, said the American airlift would be vital until the road down Sumatra's eastern coast can be restored.
The helicopter-carrying ship, the centerpiece of the operation, was to have returned to Hawaii at the end of the month to pick up family and relatives of the crew for a traditional ''Tiger Cruise" back to San Diego.
But the cruise has been canceled, and the ship's commanding officer, Captain Kendall L. Card, jokingly announced to the 5,500 personnel on board that he was starting a pool to guess the return date to home port.
Some US officers said that there was no coordination on the ground among the growing number of nongovernmental organizations, major international organizations, and various foreign military units.
''It's me walking to them, asking for a helicopter," said Ina Bluemel of the German Red Cross, describing what channels she went through to get 10 tons of hospital equipment flown by US helicopters to a German field hospital being set up at Teunam, about 80 miles southeast of Banda Aceh.