Relief workers reported the first signs of disease Wednesday among survivors of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, as damaged airports caused a bottleneck in the flow of badly needed water, food and medicine.
Red Cross official Nancy Jolo said her agency had handed out all the emergency supplies it had stored in Gizo, the main town in the disaster zone, and was waiting for new supplies from a New Zealand military transport plane that landed late Tuesday in nearby Munda.
"The priority need right now is for water," Jolo told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio from Gizo. "What we are experiencing right now in some of the campsites is children starting to experience diarrhea."
At least 28 people died in the tsunami and quake, measured at a magnitude of 8.1 by the U.S. Geological Survey. The victims include a bishop and three worshippers killed when a wave hit a church and a New Zealand man who drowned trying to save his mother, who remains missing.
Disaster officials said the toll was expected to rise as rescue crews reached outlying villages that were flattened by the waves. Bodies could be seen floating in the water by authorities conducting aerial surveys of the destruction; there was no official count of those missing.
The government cited an unconfirmed report that six people were killed on Simbo Island by a landslide triggered by the quake -- potentially pushing the toll to 34.
Some of more than 2,000 people who spent Monday night camped on a hill behind the town of Gizo returned Tuesday to look for supplies or loved ones. Others were too afraid to venture to the coast amid more than two dozen aftershocks, including at least four of magnitude-6 or stronger.
Julian Makaa of the National Disaster Management Office said more than 900 homes had been destroyed around Gizo and about 5,000 people affected.
Gizo's airport remained closed, and helicopters or a boat journey of several hours were the only ways to get emergency supplies to the town.
"We have not reached people as soon as we could ... because of the widespread nature of this particular disaster," said Fred Fakarii, chairman of the National Disaster Management Council. "Our difficulty is getting to them quickly with what we have on the ground."
Many canoes and other boats were sunk or washed away by the tsunami and fuel was contaminated with sea water, adding to the transport woes, Western Province premier Alex Lokopio said.
Australia, New Zealand, the International Red Cross and the United Nations were among those offering aid. The United States announced a donation of $250,000 for immediate relief. No formal relief plan was announced after a day of meetings by senior government officials. Makaa said the airport had been cleared of debris and would reopen Wednesday.
Disaster teams that flew over the coast around Gizo reported the "destruction was massive and widespread," said Fred Fakarii, chairman of the National Disaster Management Council.
Aerial TV footage showed tin- and thatched-roof buildings collapsed along the muddy shore. Other structures leaned awkwardly on broken stilts as men picked through the debris.
"There are some very ragged, remote areas and there's no connecting roads, (just) isolated villages," Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Marshall told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Makaa said officials could only guess at the numbers of dead in the most remote villages, where two-way radio is the usual mode of contact with the outside world.
The earthquake, which struck about six miles beneath the sea floor and 25 miles from Gizo, set off alarms from Tokyo to Hawaii, testing procedures put in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries.
But because of Gizo's proximity to the epicenter, the destructive waves -- up to 16 feet high -- hit before an alarm could be sounded. The disaster has rekindled debate about whether the multimillion-dollar warning systems installed after the 2004 tsunami are worth the cost.
"When you have a tsunami coming in so quickly after an earthquake, it doesn't do much good to have an early warning system," said U.S. earthquake expert Kerry Sieh. Officials would be better off putting more resources into disaster response education and efforts to permanently relocate vulnerable communities to higher ground, he said.
Michael Rottmann, the U.N. special coordinator for the early warning system in Indonesia, said warning systems are useful if the message gets out quickly.
"I think a lot of lives can be saved if you have a warning in less than 10 minutes," he said. "If you have five minutes and you have a reliable warning, you can get very far ... up into a hill or away from the beach."
No significant tsunami was reported Monday anywhere outside the Solomons, which are comprised of more than 200 islands with a population of about 552,000 people. They lie on the Pacific Basin's so-called "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanos and fault lines where quakes are frequent.