Five Years After The Tsunami

The Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people in 2004. The Indonesian province of Aceh was the worst hit. Host Renee Montagne talks with Save the Children's Indonesia country director Mark Fritzler about how things have changed in Aceh since the tsunami.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to a memorably sad day that followed Christmas Day five years ago. It was one of the most deadly disasters on record: The Indian Ocean tsunami. More than a quarter of a million people perished when powerful giant waves crashed onto South Asian coasts. Indonesia was the country most damaged and the tsunami nearly destroyed its province of Aceh.

We called Save the Children Indonesia country director Mark Fritzler for an update. Good morning.

Mr. MARK FRITZLER (Save the Children Indonesia): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Remind us, if you would, what the scene was like in those days after the tsunami. I mean, basically what happened?

Mr. FRITZLER: Well, Renee, it was a catastrophe in every way one could imagine. First the earth shook, and then the next thing people were saying is that, oh my God, the water is coming. And it came, and it came in a huge wave. And it caught the people who were getting ready for work. In one area they were having a big tournament on a playing field and it killed probably 10,000 people in that area. And all the eyewitnesses can tell you that it was so difficult to imagine, so difficult to process, and then walking out on the streets and seeing bodies on the streets. It was a horrifying experience.

MONTAGNE: And in all of Indonesia, the place that was hit by far the hardest was a northern province called Aceh, and suddenly people all over the world had heard of this place. A hundred and sixty thousand people killed there alone, just there?

Mr. FRITZLER: Yes, well, actually the numbers sort of vary but they've sort of settled on about 167,000 lives were lost, and children were a significantly large portion of the victims.

MONTAGNE: And that was because children were especially vulnerable to being washed away, to being carried off by the tsunami, right out into the ocean.

Mr. FRITZLER: Yes. Someone once said that probably the largest number of people who were killed were killed not by the incoming wave, but by the outgoing one, because it was carrying out all the wreckage of houses, trees, you name it. And it was that churning that killed people. And children just have no strength to protect themselves, and that's why up to 50 percent in some areas of the victims were children.

MONTAGNE: It is hard to imagine that in five years it seems like a short time to be able to pick up the pieces. To what degree have people in Aceh managed to pull their lives together?

Mr. FRITZLER: Well, Renee, one thing has to be remembered is that when people say life returning to normal, there was no normal. Before the tsunami, there was 30 years civil war had gone on. Development, infrastructure, education, health services and so on were all severely retarded because of the insurgency and the civil war. So it was not a normal situation, and so when the tsunami came, everything was reset to zero. It opened up the society.

The tremendous flood of economic input brought in by the various donors from around the world really helped to transform the society. What's happened in five years is a tremendous rebuilding of infrastructure, roads, communication -I mean they didn't have reliable or any kind of Internet access before that. And in 2007 they were digging a main trunk line putting in light fiber optic cable up the main road. So I mean it was opening up to the world.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, one thing the tsunami did was bring into really tragic relief how unprepared Indonesia and much of that region was for a tsunami. Is it prepared now?

Mr. FRITZLER: Well, I'd say things in Aceh are much better off even now, certainly, because part of the government's policies about rebuilding was to -in many areas, particularly the ones that seemed to be the most affected, the very low-lying shallow plains areas, they've adopted a green zone, so you can't build in those areas. You have to build out behind so that a new wave or something is not going to affect as many people.

One of the biggest lessons learned was to make sure that we're stocked up with relief supplies in advance so that if some new disaster occurs we can respond quickly. And we've been vindicated just in the two earthquakes that happened in September, early September, late September. So it's been a powerful lesson and it does save lives.

MONTAGNE: Mark Fritzler is Indonesia country director for Save the Children, speaking to us from Jakarta.

Thank you very much.

Mr. FRITZLER: Thank you, Renee. It was a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: And it was five years ago, on the day after Christmas, that Indonesia was struck by a devastating tsunami.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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