Gauging the Progress of Tsunami Recovery

One year ago, the South Asian tsunami left nearly 170,000 people dead or missing in the Indonesian province of Aceh alone. The United Nations estimates that many of the 450,000 people displaced by the tsunami still need permanent housing.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Fifty-two weeks ago this morning we reported that a strong earthquake in the Indian Ocean had touched off a tsunami. Reports at the time indicated the tsunami swept east towards the Indonesian island of Sumatra, north to the coast of Thailand and west to Sri Lanka and India. That day we cited wire service reports that perhaps several thousand people had died. The toll of dead and missing now stands at more than 220,000. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan was in Bangkok that morning on his way to Phuket for a vacation with his family. Sheilah Kast spoke with him on this program then and we've spoken to him many times in the year since as he's reported extensively on the aftermath of the tsunami. This weekend we reached him at home in Hanoi, having just returned from a family vacation on Phuket. A year ago, Michael cautioned that early casualty estimates might prove very conservative. This weekend, I asked him if he ever imagined how great the toll would be.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

I think it would have been pretty hard to think that. I mean, just given the fact that we have at this point more than 170,000 people dead in Aceh alone, I don't think anyone would have believed that at the time. But I remember speaking with Sheilah that weekend and there were really no reports from Aceh itself. There were reports from Sri Lanka, I remember, and reports from southern Thailand and some from India, but Aceh was a big black hole. We just weren't getting any information at all out of there. And I realized that if that were the case that something very bad must be happening in Aceh and, of course, that proved to be true.

HANSEN: Numbers are so abstract and you've actually been to Aceh province on Sumatra in Indonesia about half a dozen times since the tsunami hit. Give us an immediate sense of what the tsunami did to the communities and the people that you've seen who survived.

SULLIVAN: There's no way to really understand what the tsunami did to Aceh without just getting in a helicopter or getting in a small plane and just flying over the coast--300 miles or so of coast to see what happened there because it just came in. And we're not talking about towns that were partially destroyed or some buildings were knocked down or some things are missing. We're talking about whole towns just wiped completely off the map. If you fly over--even today--all you see are these checkerboards of foundations where houses used to be and sand. It's just--sand and foundation, sand and foundation and absolutely nothing else still a year later in many of these communities. I mean, when the waves came, I remember the first couple of days when we were there, eyewitnesses were telling us about waves that were like 50 or 60 or 70 feet high and we would look at each other and we would scratch our heads and we would say, `No, this just can't be.' And then later, of course, it turned out that some of the waves were even higher than that. It was just amazing.

HANSEN: Given your description, how do local people and the workers that are there now to give aid, how do they live?

SULLIVAN: They're living a little bit better every day. I mean, the remarkable thing for me--I've been back six times now since the tsunami and every time I go back, which is about every two months, things are noticeably better. I mean, there was a trough in the very beginning when it was just awful and there was debris everywhere. You would look at some of these towns and you would say they are never, ever, ever going to recover. And then just two months later when I came back to one town in particular that I had been following over the course of the year, tremendous progress had been made in clearing the debris and the rubble and people were already starting to come back and pitch their own small tents there. And you could get a real sense that, `OK, maybe this will work.'

And then later on in the early summer when I returned there were more houses there, more people coming back, there were more people in the tented camps who had come back every day to try to clear up their little space and, you know, inch by inch, little by little things are getting better. But you've still got--according to the UN's estimate, you still got about 100,000 people still living in tents at this point and you've got about 450,000 people who were displaced by the tsunami. Many of them still aren't in permanent housing yet either. I mean, it's going to take a long time. You can't think that this thing is going to be resolved in a year or two, that they're going to build all these houses and, Bob's your uncle, the problem is going to go away. This is going to take five or 10 years for Aceh to really get back on its feet again. And it's going to take a long-term commitment by the international community as well as the Indonesian government for this to happen.

HANSEN: Of the people who are there now, what have you seen that has struck you that could signify a normal life returning? And then contrast that with something that you have seen that really indicates how abnormal life is there.

SULLIVAN: Well, the biggest thing for me is this one guy that I have been following who lost his wife and his two small children. And I met him first--actually, later this year--in May actually, so about six months ago. And when I met him, he had built this small temporary house on the foundation of his old home next to the house that his parents lived in. His parents also died in the tsunami. And he wasn't waiting for NGOs to help. He wasn't waiting for the government to help. He just said, `You know what, I got to do something. I got to try to scrape together enough money, build my own house and start my life over again.' And he did. And I said, `OK. Well, you know, that's great, you've done this. Most other people haven't done this. You've survived. You got this new little house. You must feel pretty lucky, right?' And when I said this, his eyes just sort of glazed over and his eyes got really teary and he started to cry a little bit and I felt embarrassed and, of course, he felt embarrassed. And he said--well, I did not know at that point that he had lost his wife and his two small children. And he said, `Well, yeah, I guess I'm lucky except for the fact that I lost my wife and children.' And, of course, I felt terrible.

But I gave him a little money. I helped him out. I mean, he's got his roof for his house and that was pretty good. And when I came back this time around--you know, I had asked him the last time, `Do you ever think you can get married again and you can have a normal life again?' And he said, `No. I mean, I just can't even begin to think of that.' I came back this time, he had been married for a week. He got a new job four days before that and he was smiling. He looked a completely different man. It was like he was five years younger, like all the weight of the world has been lifted from him and there was a sense that, `Yeah, things can get better.'

So he's one of the better stories, but there are many people in that same town who had been promised houses, who have not yet gotten houses yet and this is a source of resentment among many people there. The Acehenese, they don't expect much. There's been lots of trouble there in Aceh between the Acehenese and the government there for a long time--the rebellion. People there are used to hardship so when the tsunami came, they just said, `OK, God's will. Let's just move on. We'll see what happens.' And they're very resilient and they're willing to put up with a lot. What they're not willing to put up with, I think, is people coming in and saying, `Right, we're going to help you out. We're going to build a house for you in three months and that's it and you don't have to worry.' And then that three months goes by and, for one reason or another, the house doesn't get built then they feel betrayed.

HANSEN: NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan spent much of the past year reporting on the devastation from the tsunami in Indonesia's Aceh province on the island of Sumatra.

Michael, thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Liane.

HANSEN: At our Web site, npr.org, you can watch a multimedia story about a family in the town of Phuket on Thailand's coast and its struggle to rebuild in the aftermath of the tsunami.

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