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Call for Greater Disaster Preparedness Five Years After Tsunami

Five years after the devastating tsunami struck the Asia Pacific region, aid agencies say communities have largely recovered and early warning systems are in place. But, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warns people not to be complacent. It urges greater action on disaster risk reduction efforts.

Five years ago, the world witnessed the biggest single natural disaster in living memory. A massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra created a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean.

Almost a quarter of a million people lost their lives. Millions of others lost their loved ones, their homes, and their livelihoods. This disaster elicited an outpouring of grief and generosity around the world.

The head of the International Red Cross Federation's Tsunami unit, Al Panico, says his agency received nearly $3 billion, 70 percent of this from the general public.

Speaking by telephone from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he told VOA this staggering amount of money allowed the Red Cross to undertake the biggest permanent housing program in its history.

"And, with that, we operated in 14 affected countries throughout the Indian Ocean area, built 51,000 permanent houses, 289 hospitals and clinics, 20,000 temporary shelters in Indonesia," said Panico. "It is just unbelievable amounts of work that went into that, but, important. The important work we did was just touching the lives of over five million people."

The four worst affected countries were Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Panico says in most of the hard hit communities, life is largely back to normal. He says people are living in safer and more resilient homes and communities. And, most are back to work.

"But, I hesitate to say that things are back to normal because for those people that lost family members, it is really a life that will never return to normal," said Panico. "I was just in Sri Lanka last week and in Indonesia about a month ago talking to people who had lost family members and the loss, the sorrow, the irreplaceable loved one is still felt. So, for those people, life will never be normal again."

Panico says it will take another six to 12 months to finish the job of building back better. He says hundreds of houses and hospitals in the devastated areas still have to be built.

Now that the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, he says aid workers are finally able to reach some areas in the northern Tamil region that had been off limits. He says the Red Cross just recently started building 900 houses in Jaffna and expects them to be completed in June.

Panico says five years after the tsunami struck, most communities are better equipped and better prepared to deal with disasters. He notes early warning systems are in place in all countries in the Indian Ocean. And, communities have a much greater knowledge about how to reduce risks.