Science, Tech & Environment

Surviving the tsunami

When I arrived in Banda Aceh six days after the tsunami, the rescue operation was in full swing. Everyone was exhausted and said it was like chaos. Volunteers from all over Indonesia were streaming in to help with the grizzly work. This man had arrived from Jakarta to help take corpses from the wreckage and prepare them for a proper burial. He recalls the first time he saw a dead body. Four years later, I can barely recognize any of the places I saw back then. All the wreckage has been replaced by rows of tiny houses, built by the Indonesian government and international aid organizations. About $7 billion dollars is being spent on rebuilding Aceh, and hundreds of families are still living in shelters but the Indonesian government says the remaining homes will be built by next year. This U.S. diplomat says today the province has better infrastructure than it did before the tsunami struck. He says many people didn't predict that would happen, people like this resident. She had told me how she survived by clinging to the top of a palm tree and only had one daughter who survived. She said she wanted to leave Aceh forever. But when I went back for her, I found her not too far from where we first met. She told me her story of how she's cobbled together a new house and a new life. She received a temporary government house which then blew away in a storm, so the government put up a temporary wooden house. When she demanded something more permanent she was told she already something over her head, but then she turned to Muslim Aid and they built her two sturdy rooms out of concrete. She's added a kitchen and is now building a living room too. And for the first time she's been working. She's now saving money to open a roadside cake stand. This government representative says her experience is typical for widows. Foreign governments and aid groups played an important role, building about two-thirds of the houses and helped provide temporary jobs and training. One of the more striking sights today is how the houses built for survivors are empty, 25% according to government statistics. This aid worker says the work of identifying recipients is complex and that didn't always happen in the rush to rebuild Aceh; some of the houses don't have water or electricity and some of the houses just went to people who had connections. Despite all that, this resident says she's satisfied with the reconstruction effort and the help given by the international community.

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