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Bureaucratic wrangling delays cyclone aid

KALAPARA, Bangladesh

Flying Officer Junaid Ashraf stood in front of a stack of boxes containing high-protein biscuits. Behind him, soldiers formed a human chain as they rapidly loaded the boxes into the belly of a giant transport helicopter.

Junaid and his fellow airmen from the Bangladesh Air Force are flying missions from dawn to dusk across the cyclone-affected coastal areas.

"As a human being you are shocked, because the people are crying, asking for goods," he said. "They don't have any goods."

We joined one of those missions into the heart of the disaster zone, flying over a brutalized landscape of shattered houses and flattened crops. A ferry sat halfway up the bank of a river, where it had been thrown by the storm. I imagined a malign giant stomping across the landscape.

A tragic sign
We squeezed in the plane beside a cargo of rice, blankets and biscuits, and landed near a town called Kalapara, where hundreds of hungry cyclone survivors lined the perimeter of the makeshift helipad, held back by soldiers. The airmen quickly unloaded the supplies, explaining to us that they didn't want to spend long on the ground, because earlier flights had been mobbed by survivors, many of whom have received little help since the cyclone struck eleven days ago.

Within minutes we were airborne again, flying over a nearby bridge, part of which had collapsed Saturday under the weight of angry and desperate cyclone survivors. They'd been scrambling for relief supplies; the accident a tragic sign of the desperation now gripping many areas. Three people were killed and many injured.

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The Bangladesh Air Force has been flying relief missions from dawn to dusk across cyclone-affected coastal areas.

The air force insists aid is now reaching most affected areas. But with only seven available helicopters, they cannot hope to more than a fraction of the needs of those in the more isolated areas. Foreign aid is arriving in Bangladesh, but distribution is patchy, coordination poor, and only a fraction of the of the $500 million pledged to Bangladesh has arrived.

Wrangling delays aid
Bangladesh's army chief today appealed for better coordination among relief agencies. The most urgent need is for drinking water to head off an epidemic of water-borne diseases.

"We are trying to collect as much water as we can. We are doing are level best to get it to the affected people," Junaid told us.

U.S. Marine helicopters operating from the USS Kearsarge, anchored off the Bangladesh coast, have ferried 6,000 gallons of water ashore. The Marines have set up a coordination headquarters in the town of Barisal, but a promised larger humanitarian operation has been delayed.

According to senior aid officials, the delay is the result of wrangling with the Bangladesh military over coordination and control of the operation. The Bangladesh government is also very sensitive about the way it will be presented, not wanting to be upstaged. And so the survivors wait.

In town after town, they gather at the roadside, trying to stop passing aid trucks. In the shell of a mosque, we met an imam who was carefully drying out water-logged copies of the Quran. He read from one, while urging those at prayer to have strength.

The Bangladesh Air Force insists it is doing the best it can. One senior officer told us today that a joint operation with the Americans is kicking into gear, establishing a strong network of helipads across the storm-affected area. They will need to move quickly if they are to ward off hunger and disease among the desperate survivors.