BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA —
When a magnitude-9.0 undersea quake unleashed a tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, no place on land was closer than the Indonesian province of Aceh, on the northern coast of Sumatra island.
Aceh bore the brunt of what was one of the largest-ever natural disasters, triggered by an earthquake so large that scientists said it caused the Earth to wobble on its axis by a few centimeters.
Thirteen countries were affected, with a quarter-million people killed, one-third of them children. Five million people were left homeless.
The first wave slammed into the coastal area of Banda Aceh about 15 minutes after the quake. At twice the height of the coconut trees lining the beaches, the wall of water moved inland between two and four kilometers.
In the capital, one out of every 10 inhabitants died. The total death toll for Aceh was estimated as high as 170,000 people.
Wary survivors rebuild coastal homes
The wife of Samsul Bahri was one of the immediate fatalities. She was in their modest home just 20 meters from the beach.
The house of the fish wholesaler was rebuilt by a domestic aid group in the same location, despite recommendations that no one should live within 300 meters of the vulnerable coastline.
Some of the replacement homes were also hastily and shoddily built, much to the chagrin of their occupants.
Bahri is among those less than thrilled to again be living along the coast with his new wife and their two daughters, ages 6 and 4.
“I can’t afford to live anywhere else,” he explained. “So I had to come back here, even though I’m afraid.”
Survivors say that for many months they panicked at the least discernible aftershock, which triggered flashbacks to December 26, 2004.
A decade later it is evident that many residents remain emotionally upset.
Salmi Hardiyanti recounts how she, then 14, survived because of the good fortune of being some kilometers inland at her school dormitory.
"I have to cry right now. I’m very sad," she said, and then laughed nervously.
Nine of her closest relatives perished in one house and 23 more family members were washed away in several other locations.
Like many other survivors, Hardiyanti, now 24, will never know the final resting spot for her relatives’ bodies.
About 35,000 bodies of the estimated 170,000 people killed were never located.
“I try to visit every mass grave in Banda Aceh to pray for them,” she explained.
At one public high school in the Aceh Besar Regency, 340 of the total enrollment of about 400 students perished in the tsunami, which struck on a Sunday, when many were at home.
School counselor Sukmawati (who uses one name like many Indonesians) was seriously injured in the calamity. She says about 5 percent of the students still struggle with psychological issues.
"Some are living alone and have no one to talk to," she explained. "Some cannot focus on their studies, some have trouble socializing and remain aloof. Others are disruptive."
Seventeen-year-old high school senior Surya contends he is among the 95 percent of his peers who have put the trauma behind them.
Surya, who lost 12 of 16 family members, spent a month in the hospital for a broken leg and other injuries.
It is obvious he has found solace in his faith. He wants to become an "ustad," a religious instructor in a mosque, but expresses an outlook shaped by his experiences from the tsunami.
"Where we go, wherever we sit, wherever we run, death will eventually come,” lamented Surya. "By the grace of Allah, we live and we die."
Tsunami aid reshaped disaster planning
Although the emotional scars remain evident among the people, there is little lingering evidence of the physical destruction from the event.
The tsunami was followed by an unprecedented wave of aid from around the world.
The devastated province was flooded with personnel from nearly 500 agencies, domestic and international, pledging more than $6.5 billion worth of aid and assistance. This was about $2 billion more than the total estimate of damage and losses from the catastrophe, which nearly equaled the gross regional product of the province.
For a while it was unmanageable and some aid agencies declared a hiatus on donations.
"There were more [new] houses than those who could live in them. There were more boats and nets than fishermen," recalled Mingming Remata-Evora, Indonesia country director for the children’s development NGO Plan International.
To prevent the same scenario with future disasters Remata-Evora recommends incorporating risk reduction into development work.
Aceh province had suffered for the three previous decades because of a separatist conflict. Less than a year after the tsunami, the rebels of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Islamist Free Aceh movement) began turning in their weapons as a peace treaty was implemented.
That cleared the way for the rebuilding to progress unimpeded by hostilities.
But to coordinate the massive recovery effort, Indonesia created one of the largest humanitarian programs in history overseen by a single agency (Badan Rehabilitasi dan Reconstruksi).
It cooperated with outside donors who pooled their contributions into a Multi-Donor Fund, which "had direct and significantly positive effects on coordination," according to a 2008 analysis by the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution.
After housing, the sector that received the most funds was transportation.
The U.S. Agency for International Development spearheaded a $250 million American project to build a 150-kilometer highway on the west coast.
The Japanese built bridges.
In all, more than 50 countries made some kind of contribution.
Turning disaster into opportunity
A decade later in the province there is a fledgling tsunami tourism industry.
Banda Aceh five years ago completed a fancy, $6.7 million tsunami museum, shaped like a ship, which doubles as a disaster shelter.
Other tourist attractions nearby include actual ships that came to rest atop residences. Small souvenir shops have popped up adjacent to the surreal sites.
In 2010, the 800-year-old city inaugurated a new post-tsunami multistory home for its municipal government, an architectural delight that would be the envy of many comparably sized cities in advanced countries.
While some critics might question the spending of tsunami recovery aid on glitzy public buildings, most officials deem the reconstruction a triumph.
Bukhari Daud, the former regent of Aceh Besar, lauds the division of labor among the local authorities and international agencies in reviving the province.
“You can’t do everything by yourself. You need friends,” said Daud. “For anyone who had come to Aceh before the tsunami, they can clearly understand how successful was the reconstruction effort.”
Tens of thousands of mangrove trees were planted that locals hope will impede future killer waves.
More than 15,000 hectares of fish ponds now dot the coast where a total of 80,000 hectares of agricultural land has been rehabilitated.
As the sun dips in the west, from where the tsunami emerged a decade ago, Samsul Bahri stands with his youngest daughter on a large boulder between the road and the beach in front of his house.
He can observe the changing of the tide, a span of several meters here on a typical day. But he is now acutely aware the waves are not always regulated by just the tug of the sun and the moon.
Scientists last year found inside a nearby cave sediment deposits providing evidence of four to five tsunamis pummeling Sumatra within a 500-year period several thousand years ago.
Before 2004, the previous significant tsunami had struck Aceh in 1907.
The lesson learned: Destructive tsunamis do not occur at set intervals, and coastal dwellers need to be prepared for one to strike at any time.
"I’m afraid, of course," said Bahri. "But there’s no other place for me to call home."