Two Years On, Tsunami Recovery Is Lagging The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed more than 170,000 people in the Indonesian province of Aceh alone, washing away tens of thousands of homes, schools and businesses. Two years later, reconstruction is under way, but serious challenges in housing and infrastructure remain.
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Two Years On, Tsunami Recovery Is Lagging

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Two Years On, Tsunami Recovery Is Lagging

Two Years On, Tsunami Recovery Is Lagging

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Two years ago today, more than 220,000 people died in a massive Indian Ocean tsunami.

BBC reporter Roland Buerk was reporting from Sri Lanka.

ROLAND BUERK: The sea scrambled, the tracks has been ruined and water was coming in under the door, then the water came through the windows, the windows crushed in with glass shattering everywhere.

We got into a tree and that seemed to be okay but only for about 30 seconds. Then the tree fell over with it, the force of the water and we were thrown in, and we were then bobbing along on this incredibly powerful wave of seawater, with refrigerators and motorbikes and cars.

And so we managed to grab hold of a pillar and we stayed there until the water stopped moving.

MONTAGNE: That's the BBC's Roland Buerk in Sri Lanka, shortly after the tsunami hit.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has made several trips to the region to examine the recovery effort. Here's his latest report from the Indonesian province of Aceh.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: The provincial capital Banda, Aceh is booming - new stores, new restaurants, new hotels with Wi-Fi and fancy fitness clubs. And something else new, and not at all welcome in this once sleepy city - traffic jams that peak during morning and evening rush hour.

All of these seemed unimaginable just two years ago. Paul Dillon is with the International Organization for Migration.

Mr. PAUL DILLON: I arrived two days after the tsunami, and I've been there ever since. And I'm constantly amazed to see the extent to which the reconstruction has occurred, schools being rebuilt, roads being rehabilitated, people back at work.

That said there remain major challenges when it comes to issues of housing and infrastructure in Aceh. And those are going to persist for years to come.

(Soundbite of children talking)

Unidentified child: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: A gaggle of children greets a visitor in the muddy courtyard outside their temporary home in the town of Ilokgna, several miles up the coast from the provincial capital.

It took just a few minutes for the tsunami to leave a half-million homeless in Aceh. Two years on, some 70,000 are still living in temporary wooden barracks like this one. Entire families sometimes more, in a single room.

MARZUKI(ph) (Fisherman): (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: Marzuki is 28 years old, a fisherman and a widower, who shares his room in the barracks with two other families. He wants to get on with his life to start a new family, to replace the one he lost he says, but can't. Not while he has to live like this.

MARZUKI: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: They tell me I have to be patient, Marzuki says, but they won't tell me when I'll get help to rebuild. It might be a few months. It might be longer, he says. They just tell me I have to wait. The United Nations recovery coordinator for Aceh, Eric Morris hears Marzuki's frustration. Two years on he says things could and should be better.

Mr. ERIC MORRIS (Coordinator, United Nations Recovery): I would say a B+ for effort, and something less in terms of actual accomplishments in terms of stated targets.

SULLIVAN: No one disputes that the initial response to the tsunami was extraordinary, and extraordinarily successful. The reconstruction phase has been less so. In part, Morris says because of promises made early on that proved impossible to keep.

Mr. MORRIS: Many of the targets that were set particularly with respect to building new permanent houses for the tsunami survivors - most of those targets were probably unrealistic, with an insufficient awareness of what the obstacles were in terms of procurement of construction supplies, logistics constraints, land acquisition issues against the expectations that were generated. Those expectations have not been fully met.

SULLIVAN: Competition between aid agencies has sometimes gotten in the way of cooperation, Morris says. As NGOs rush to build houses and spend the money, generously donated by governments and ordinary people from around the world.

Paul Dillon of the International Organization for Migration.

Mr. PAUL DILLON: There are different ways of going about rebuilding these settlements, these communities. Some of them have been very effective, some of them less so. And as a result, you have a mishmash, a potpourri of different styles and qualities of construction. And that can be very problematic.

SULLIVAN: The town of Peukan Bada offers a pretty good glimpse into the progress and the problems, so far. A place where only a handful of buildings were left standing after the tsunami, a town where more than half the population was swept away, 10,000 people gone in an instant.

Peukan Bada is on the mend. Construction crews busy rebuilding hundreds of homes, which have sprouted like mushrooms among the marsh grass and tidal pools near the shore. Some built early on by a South African charity that since left are so small, and so poorly built that they sit empty with residents refusing to move in. Others are bigger and better.

One of the people we've been following over the past two years is Mursalin(ph), the proud owner of this new house. Just a few feet away from the crude, one-room shack he built last year on the foundation of his old house, swept away, along with his family when the tsunami hit.

Mr. MURSALIN (Tsunami Survivor): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Mursalin gives a tour of his nearly completed home, one of 200 built in Peukan Bada by Catholic Relief Services. Two bedrooms, a living room and a bathroom, he says - more than enough space for Mursalin, his new wife and their 8-month-old son.

Mr. MURLASIN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We were supposed to move in a few months ago, he says, but they tell us there's a problem with the contractor.

Mursalin says he hopes they'll be able to move sometime in January. But Catholic Relief Services, Aceh Director Scott Campbell says that's not going to happen.

Mr. SCOTT CAMPBELL (Director, Catholic Relief Services): We're having issues with certain contractors based on the quality of the houses they're building. CRS is committed to making sure that the houses we build are structurally sound. And when those quality standards aren't met, we have to take certain actions to make sure that contractors in the field are building up to standard.

SULLIVAN: Campbell says it could take five or six months more to retrofit the houses in question. Mursalin is disappointed but still grateful. When it is finished, he says, it'll be a good house - better than many here. He just wishes that would happen sooner.

A few hundred yards away, a different house, a different sponsor and a different opinion from another family we've been following since the beginning. When the tsunami took their house, Samiruddin(ph) and Rohani(ph) fled with their two children to her mother's home several miles farther inland.

Now their new home in Peukan Bada is almost finished, built by Samiruddin with material and some labor provided by a German-funded local NGO, Uplink. It's taken a while but Samiruddin says the wait has been worth it.

SAMIRUDDIN (Tsunami Survivor): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Our old house was a little bigger, but this one is stronger, he says. It's all concrete. And the walls are much thicker than our old house, or even those new houses that CRS is building over there. So I'm pretty happy, Samiruddin says, with the way things are going.

His trucking business is going well, too with more work than he can handle. Samiruddin's 11-year-old son, Yusran, is also eager to move back.

YUSRAN (Tsunami Survivor): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: This is where I used to live, he says, so I'm happy to be coming back. I'll be able to walk to school and play more with my friends who've also come back.

Yusran says he's no longer afraid of the water, as he was immediately after the tsunami. His mother, Rohani, is. She's been reluctant to move back from the beginning, and is no less reluctant now.

ROHANI (Tsunami Survivor): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I'm still afraid, she says with a nervous laugh. I'm afraid in my heart that the water will come again. I know my husband and my children want to move back, she says, but if it were up to me, we'd just stay with my mother.

But many survivors don't have a choice and will be living with relatives or in barracks for some time to come. Initial estimates put recovery time for the battered province at three to five years. Officials now say it may take a decade or more. And even that depends, to a large extent, on whether a post-tsunami peace agreement between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government continues to hold.

Most Acehnese hope it does. Between that decades-long conflict and the tsunami, they figure they've suffered enough.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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