The terrifying power of the waves reduced whole areas to piles of debris.
It was the day after Christmas. Many of us were still sleeping off the celebrations, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, or generally recovering from the festivities of the day before. Then, at some point, we heard the news. A massive earthquake had sent a speeding tsunami across the Indian Ocean. Already, thousands were feared dead, and the list was growing.
An aerial view of the devastation
Across the world, those not directly affected switched on their TVs and were met with scenes of devastation that seemed hard to believe. Tragically, it was all too real. But the full impact of the 2004 ‘Boxing Day tsunami’ had just begun.
Homes lie in ruin – at least those which were not swept away completely.
“The horror of this place reminds me of something from a biblical disaster story or the sketches of Hieronymus Bosch. Everywhere I go I have to be careful I don't step on a corpse.” These are the words of eyewitness Chris Rainier, a photographer and International Medical Corps volunteer who reached Sumatra two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami hit.
A radio tower seems to have somehow survived the onslaught of the waves.
“The buildings have been flattened for miles and entire communities – probably something like a hundred thousand people – have been swept out to sea,” Rainer reported. “The best way to describe this – because we grew up with the images and we all know what it looked like – is that Banda Aceh looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb,” he said.
This house looks relatively intact compared to many.
The force of the waves that hit Sumatra that day actually had twice the explosive energy of that expended in World War II, including the two nuclear bombs. Yet this shocking number is dwarfed by the energy released during the earthquake itself, which is estimated to have been equivalent to 23,000 (yes, 23,000) Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Miraculously, some buildings still appear to be standing.
It proved to be the deadliest and most destructive tsunami in history. Between 230,000 and 280,000 people were killed and millions were displaced. With Sumatra as the epicenter of the tragedy, the highest death toll was Indonesia itself, which suffered the double disaster of the earthquake and the resulting tidal waves.
Red Cross volunteers had the solemn task of collecting the dead.
Eyewitnesses likened the sound of the oncoming tsunami to three freight trains, or a loud jet. And we can only imagine the terror of those who heard that ominous noise. The first warning sign would have been the ocean receding – a sign known to so many of us in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami but, sadly, recognized by few before that day.
A body is wrapped in plastic before being taken away.
At the time, the sight of the receding waters drew children and tourists, in particular, onto the beach to investigate. Some picked up the stranded flapping fish; others took photos. Tragically, it was curiosity that led so many of them to their deaths.
A makeshift butchery
In Indonesia, the hardest hit area was the region of Aceh, on the western coast. Waves were reported to reach up to 60 feet high, and they moved up to five miles inland. With the area being so close to the source, for the people there was little time for escape.
Carpets left to dry in the sun
The disaster took more than 170,000 lives in Aceh, and further half a million were left without homes. Whole communities were washed off the face of the Earth. And as these photographs show, the devastation in some areas was complete.
Regardless of the disaster zone around them, people still need to eat.
There was one fortunate exception to the communities devastated in Sumatra. The islanders of Simeulue, which was close to the epicenter, told folk tales about a tsunami that hit in 1907. So, forewarned by this incident, the locals ran to higher ground after the earthquake, which saved countless lives when the tsunami hit. Proof that it pays to remember your history.
This road, at least, seems to have survived.
Yet most people in Aceh were not so lucky. Before the earthquake and tidal waves struck, there were 4,271,000 living in the province. Afterwards, there were 4,031,589. In one village of 3,000, only 100 survived. People lost hundreds of friends and relatives in a single day.
A woman searches through the debris.
On top of the horror, grief and devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, there was still more to come. First there were continued aftershocks and a second earthquake that measured 9.1 on the Richter scale. Then survivors faced a lack of shelter and basic necessities, like fresh water, food and medicine. Added to that, there was the unpleasant task of dealing with thousands of decaying bodies. And there was also the risk of disease spreading.
This aerial shot shows that some places were still waterlogged after the tsunami receded.
Fortunately, the humanitarian response was strong and swift. Nations, organizations and individuals, shocked by the scale of the calamity, were quick to offer their support. The United States, Australia, India and Japan formed a coalition to ensure that aid reached its destination as rapidly and efficiently as possible. This duty was later taken over by the United Nations.
If anything, people felt they just couldn’t promise enough aid. And it almost seemed like countries were competing with each other to show who could make the greatest donation. This prompted UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland to say, “I'd rather see competitive compassion than no compassion.”
Boxes and packets of aid supplies waiting to be distributed
Of course, pledging aid and delivering it are two different things. In March 2005, The Asian Development Bank reported that over US$4 billion in pledged aid was still owed. And of the aid that did reach its destination, not all of it was appropriate. “A lot of aid which has been coming in latterly is I'm afraid – I'm sorry to say – not very useful,” said the foreign minister of Sri Lanka. “For instance there was a container full of teddy bears. They're obviously given with good will, nobody says no to that,” he added.
A rough sea
One of the first organizations to mobilize after the disaster was the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It was their largest mission ever, bringing 22,000 volunteers from 40 countries together to deliver aid to victims all over the affected parts of Asia. In Aceh, they supplied over 80,000 people with clean drinking water and sanitation services. In addition, they provided survivors with blankets, tarpaulins for shelter, hygiene kits and other basic necessities.
A helicopter arrives on the scene.
Still, the situation was daunting. “Hundreds of thousands of survivors are refugees, squatting in makeshift camps wherever you go,” Rainier explained. “A lot of relief agencies are trying to get in here to set things up. But the logistics remain a nightmare. Everyone is very impressed with the US military relief effort and the UN's coordination of some 200 different [charity organizations] setting up here. The urgent challenge is to make sure that another hundred thousand people don't die from disease.”
Medical workers treat a young boy.
Even before the earthquake and tsunami hit, Aceh was a province with troubles. Ongoing fighting between separatist rebels and the government had led to a state of emergency being declared in 2003. But little did they know that an even bigger emergency was on the horizon. One positive to come out of the disaster was that a ceasefire was called between the government and guerillas to deal with the aftermath, which eventually led to peace talks and the rebels disbanding their military wing.
The wrecked coastline of Aceh
Today, in 2012, eight years after the disaster, Aceh has made a great recovery. In 2010, the Jakarta Post reported that most of the tsunami and earthquake survivors had put the nightmarish events behind them and were getting on with their lives. New roads have been built, new houses have replaced the ones leveled, and buildings like hospitals, places of worship and government offices have been erected – thousands of them quake proof. Still, we can only speculate as to how long the psychological impact of the disaster will linger.
A young girl investigates a television camera.
Many other countries are still suffering from the effects of the tsunami. The smaller economies that depended on industries like tourism were hit the worst. The environment was also affected in many places, and the United Nations Environment Programme, with the help of regional governments, is working to monitor and address the tsunami’s impact on the ecology.
Also, in 2005, a UN conference led to the implementation of a tsunami warning system being set up in the ocean around Indonesia. This system will hopefully keep the region safe from the type of disaster that struck on that fateful Boxing Day in 2004.