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Volume 15, Issue 29 ~ July 19 - July 25, 2007

Changing Latitudes, Changing Attitudes

In the tsunami’s wake

Banda Aceh, Indonesia: Latitude 05.35 N; Longitude 95.20 E

by Dick Wilson

Disaster may be a lot closer than any of us think. As we’ve seen in recent years — in New Orleans, Indonesia and other locations — nature can wreak havoc anywhere, at any time, without warning.

In Chesapeake Country, we’d be especially vulnerable to massive destruction if a tsunami should ever enter the mouth of the Bay. Such an event could happen, scientists say, if an earthquake in the Cape Verde area of Africa caused massive landslides there. The landslides would displace a huge volume of water, resulting in a monumental tsunami that would race across the Atlantic and inundate the entire East Coast. If this scenario should ever come to pass, the loss in human life could reach the millions.

Fortunately, such an event is unlikely — but you never know.

The Moment of Disaster

More than 130,000 people perished in the city of Banda Aceh (bon-da ah-chay), Indonesia, during the tsunami of December 26, 2004. In less than two hours, the city lost about 10 percent of its population. The wave, pushed by the ocean, roared ashore with no warning, and houses, people and animals were swept away in the torrent.

In March 2007, we were in Indonesia, so we visited Banda Aceh to talk to survivors and see for ourselves what the tsunami had done.

An 83-year-old Indonesian woman told me that she was bathing when she felt the house shaking; the room was moving back and forth like a boat on a rough sea. She quickly wrapped a towel around herself and ran outside to discover that the house was indeed afloat. When she stepped out of the doorway into what she thought was shallow water, she was swept from her porch toward the street where she grabbed and held on to a tree until rescued.

“My head kept going under,” she said.

She survived, thanks to luck, a sturdy tree, her ability to swim and the soundness of her house’s foundation. Few Indonesian women know how to swim.

Unbelievable Destruction

Most of the dead had no chance to escape the heaving, grinding, debris-filled waters. Everything that comprises human enterprise — including boats, buildings and vehicles, not to mention people — was carried along by the massive, irresistible surge.

After peaking several miles inland, the water receded, leaving a scene of unbelievable destruction. The survivors faced the aftermath of a catastrophe that none had foreseen.

“Bodies were everywhere,” a survivor told me. “The smell was terrible for a long time.”

Bodies and body parts were mixed with the debris. Many of the dead could not be reached until tons of debris were cleared away. The cleanup took weeks, and is still ongoing two years after the calamity. Scattered throughout the city are vast, grass-covered areas where the dead are buried.

A memorial marks the dead. In less than two hours, The tsunami killed more than 130,000 people in the city of Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

The awesome power of the tsunami left many visible signs. As the water moved inland, it was funneled into narrow valleys, further concentrating its force. The side of a ridge several miles from shore is swept clean of all vegetation up to a height of at least 100 feet. Stumps of palm trees stick from barren ground where once grew lush vegetation.

But the most dramatic example, perhaps, is a huge ocean-going barge that now rests in the middle of a residential inland neighborhood. This is more than a boat; it’s a ship weighing many tons. The wave lifted the barge from the harbor, carried it over the tops of houses and dropped it more than three miles from shore in a residential neighborhood. Houses and people were crushed; they remain under the barge. Now the vessel houses the city’s power distribution system, which is fitting since it also serves as a stark reminder of the raw power of nature.

Many children died in the tsunami, and it’s a rare Acehnese family that did not lose at least one little one. Like other Indonesians, Acehnese families tend to have several generations — grandparents, parents, children and children’s children (and maybe some cousins) — living under one roof. So children weren’t the only victims. Many families lost as many as 20 family members.

Now, 27 months after the disaster, we expected to find a place engulfed in mourning. But such was not the case; the people we met showed no overt signs of grief. They freely discussed the tsunami and its aftermath without visible signs of emotion, and they seem to have an inner strength that may derive from the fact that everyone in the city shares the same anguish; no one escaped scot-free.

“It’s all right,” an oil worker told me. “It’s in the hands of God.”

Seeking to Rise

Aside from the toll in human lives, the tsunami caused huge social and legal problems. Property lines were wiped out, opening the door for monumental legal claims. What was once prime beachfront property is now underwater. And the property damage extends several miles inland. People who once owned property now have no way to know where their property is — or was. All government records were swept away by the water, and there are few geographical features left to help locate property lines. The city is full of gutted ruins and free-standing walls that were once parts of houses, but the owners have no way to prove ownership, which is what the government requires before a house can be rebuilt.

Housing for the surviving population was (and probably still is) the most urgent problem in the flood’s aftermath, and many governments (including the U.S.) and non-government organizations responded to the need.

The Indonesian government set rules on new construction and established a bureaucracy that sometimes hindered as much as it helped. One of the rules is that new houses must not be more than 36 square meters (a little more than 1,000 square feet). It’s a realistic response to a situation involving hundreds of thousands of newly homeless people, but many find the policy difficult to accept. Someone whose large family may have once resided comfortably in a 20-room mansion is now stuck with 36 square meters.

Numerous problems have arisen with the construction of the new houses. Many (maybe most) of the homes built soon after the flood were erected in haste, and now they’re crumbling. But there’s no one to blame; a large sector of the population was homeless, and aid groups were responding to the urgent need as quickly as possible.

Aceh is rich in natural resources, including oil. The province occupies a unique niche in Indonesia. Ninety-five percent Muslim, they fought a low-scale guerilla war for many years against the Indonesian government to gain their independence. Prior to the tsunami, they wanted no contaminating influences from outside and discouraged tourism.

Everything changed after the tsunami. The Acehnese realized after the disaster that they had to rely on help from outside. Now, everyone is welcome in Aceh, although political problems still persist.

Remember the 83-year-old lady who was saved by a tree? She told me that the tsunami “has changed everything for the better.”

Imagine that.

• • •

I can only report our own experience with the Acehnese: We found them to be warm and friendly, just like all other Indonesians we met. I wouldn’t recommend Aceh as a tourist destination, but I’m glad we were there. During our five-day sojourn in Aceh, we encountered only kindness, courtesy and respect. I will reciprocate in kind when we return in 2008.

For now I’ll just sit and relax on our serene Chesapeake shore — but I’ll never forget that things can change in an instant.

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