U.N.: Tsunami damage 'unprecedented'
Emergency relief head calls on nations to step up aid
Residents displaced by a tsunami sit in a relief camp in a temple in Varichikudi, India.
Witnesses describe the devastation of the tsunamis.
Thousands have drowned and thousands are missing in India.
Tsunamis scour coastlines around Asia.
UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The United Nations' emergency relief head called the tsunamis that devastated large parts of southern Asia "unprecedented," and warned Monday that it may be weeks before the full effects are known.
The tsunamis were "not the biggest in recorded history, but the effects may be the biggest ever because many more people live in exposed areas than ever before," said Jan Egeland, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.
With tens of thousands dead, many missing and millions displaced, still more serious problems lie ahead, Egeland said, including widespread illnesses. And it could take years to rebuild places that were wiped out, he said.
Monday afternoon, he said relief efforts were under way.
"A lot of airplanes are already being loaded. Some are already airborne and going to the hardest-hit countries, like Sri Lanka," he said, adding that experts had arrived in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. (Full story)
Six U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes, loaded with relief supplies, are on standby in Japan awaiting orders to fly to Thailand, Pentagon officials said Monday.
A public affairs official said the planes are expected to depart Yokota Air Base between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. ET Tuesday to take basic food, shelter, and medical supplies to Utaphao, Thailand.
The United States also has two Navy ships in the area, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.
Both have medical facilities and helicopters that could be used in relief efforts, a Pentagon spokesman told CNN.
Navy P-3 Orion surveillance planes have been deployed from Kadena Air Base to Utaphao.
The planes will be used to conduct "survey operations," a U.S. Navy official said.
In a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York, Egeland called for a major international response -- and went so far as to call the U.S. government and others "stingy" on foreign aid in general.
"If, actually, the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the gross national income, I think that is stingy, really," he said. "I don't think that is very generous."
The U.S. government expects to spend $15 million in its initial response to the disaster, the State Department said Monday. The United States' overall foreign aid commitment is around 0.2 percent of its gross national product. (Full story)
The Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, in an April report to lawmakers, said total foreign assistance -- excluding the costs of reconstruction in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion -- was larger in the 2003 and 2004 budgets than in any two-year period since the mid-1980s.
"The 0.2 percent of U.S. gross national product represented by foreign aid obligations the past two years, however, is among the smallest amounts in the last half-century. The United States is the largest international economic aid donor in dollar terms but is the smallest contributor among the major donor governments when calculated as a percent of gross national income," said the report, which is posted on the U.S. State Department's Web site.
At a White House briefing Monday in Crawford, Texas, CNN asked spokesman Trent Duffy about the "stingy" remark. He said he thinks the United States is "the largest contributor to international relief and aid efforts not only through the government, but through charitable organizations. The American people are very giving, so we'll continue to be that and we'll be a leading partner in this effort that lies ahead."
Egeland, at the U.N. news conference, said the cost of the devastation will "probably be many billions of dollars. However, we cannot fathom the cost of these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages that have just been wiped out."
"The important thing is that we give and that we as citizens also demand that our countries give generously to those who have been so hard hit."
The tsunamis were triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and Egeland said the quake struck less than an hour before Sumatra was hit by the waves. (Explainer: Tsunami and earthquake facts)
UNICEF: Clean water crucial
UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy told CNN that the agency is doing "everything possible," focusing on getting blankets, medicine and water purification tablets sent to the affected areas.
"Getting clean water to people is crucial," she said, and predicted widespread disease if that is not done.
But that is not an easy prescription, she said, because transportation and communications in many of the affected areas are difficult even in the best of times.
Asked what form of aid would be best for Americans to send, she did not hesitate.
"I know people like to send cans of food or clothing, but the fact is money can get what people need quickest."