Devastating 2004 tsunami cleared the way for better infrastructure in Indonesia

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to Indonesia and the remarkable recovery of a community that was nearly wiped out by natural disaster.

NewsHour special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

KIRA KAY: On a Sunday morning, the villagers of Lampuuk gather for a feast, celebrating the start of the harvest season. But Lampuuk is also celebrating the life that has returned to it, a decade after a wall of water swept the village away.

Misran Yusuf is the village's imam. He recalls a scene eerily like this one on December 26, 2004.

MISRAN YUSUF (through interpreter): There was a wedding that day. We were preparing food, and, all of a sudden, an earthquake hit. It was so strong, people fell. We had no idea that the seawater would rise. We had never heard of a tsunami.

KIRA KAY: The quake that hit offshore was a 9.1 on the magnitude scale. Within 20 minutes, waves 60 feet high hit the region at hundreds of miles per hour.

MISRAN YUSUF (through translator): It sounded like thunder. I held my breath and the water came over the rooftops. When I surfaced, I saw people clinging to a tree trunk. They pulled me on board and we floated until we reached the next village.

KIRA KAY: One hundred and thirty thousand people died, and whole communities vanished. Lampuuk's lone standing mosque became an iconic image of the disaster. Ten years later, it is hard to picture that destruction on the streets of the capital city, Banda Aceh.

The once shattered downtown is now firmly back in business. The riverside, choked with debris, is a thriving waterfront again. People overall seem happy. The tsunami had carved a new shoreline, disappearing whole blocks of the community of Ulee Lee. But now it is a favorite beach destination for families. Only small hints remain of what happened here.

Mayor Illiza Sa'aduddin says the region has built back better.

MAYOR ILLIZA SA'ADUDDIN DJAMAL, Banda Aceh, Indonesia (through interpreter): The economy has improved. Our poverty level has decreased to a rate that is below the national average. Our infrastructure is better than even before the tsunami. Roads are now reaching remote villages. There are a lot of lessons that Aceh can share about how we got back on our feet and how we were able to cooperate with many institutions.

KIRA KAY: The international disaster response was a massive $7 billion in aid and reconstruction. While not entirely corruption-free, the process was overall transparent and responsive to actual need.

The biggest challenge was to provide housing for half-a-million newly homeless. But, 10 years on, nearly everyone who needed a permanent home has gotten one.

MURNI NASIIR (through interpreter): The tsunami feels like it was only a month ago. But, thank goodness, we have rebuilt our lives.

KIRA KAY: Murni and Sakinah both lived in Ulee Lee and managed to outrun the waves. After living in a displacement camp, they were given houses in a sprawling community overlooking Banda Aceh, known as Jackie Chan Hill. The action star helped fund the construction.

SAKINAH ABDULLAH (through interpreter): We'd prefer to stay here, rather than in Ulee Lee, where it's so close to the sea. I get frightened even where's wind like this, let alone an earthquake.

KIRA KAY: In Lampuuk, 800 of the 1,000 residents died, but survivors chose to return to their ancestral land. And they now have an action plan.

MISRAN YUSUF (through interpreter): If a quake is strong, we rush to the nearby hill. We also have people on lookout by the sea. If the level changes, they will rush here and alert us. I'm so grateful for the help from other countries. A lot of countries came. Even George Bush and Bill Clinton came to my village.

KIRA KAY: Aceh's gratitude to the world is clear. Banda Aceh's central park has been turned into a monument of thanks, each donor country acknowledged individually. A world-class museum to the tsunami is a huge weekend draw. Most of the visitors are Acehnese, many too young to remember what happened here.

The walls describe in detail the global response. And there are displays teaching the science at the root of the disaster. And, nearby, a startling sight, a massive electricity barge that was carried three miles inland by a wave and dropped in the middle of a neighborhood. Authorities decided to leave it in place.

Lina Herlena is a certified tour guide.

LINA HERLENA: It shows our strength. It shows our strength that after the tsunami, our lives have not stopped. Our lives have not ended. It also teaches our generation how to take the lessons from what has happened in the tsunami.

KIRA KAY: These lessons extend to new emergency response procedures implemented by the city's tsunami center.

Dr. Ella Meilianda manages the program.

ELLA MEILIANDA, Program Manager, Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center: The road is wider now. And the coastal road has been designed in a way that it is quite far away from the coastline. And then they have clear marks of evacuation routes.

KIRA KAY: Tsunami sirens dot the skyline. They warn citizens when an earthquake of seven or higher is detected out at sea. When they sound, residents should make their way to a vertical evacuation site, water-resistant high-rises with a helipad pad on top.

ELLA MEILIANDA: We have 17 junior high schools under our program. And for these schools, they know what to do. They have built their own evacuation route, where the meeting point for all these children, and how the parents should pick them up.

KIRA KAY: But the first activation of the system didn't go very well. In 2012, an 8.6 earthquake hit the area and people panicked, not following evacuation procedure and jamming the streets with vehicles.

Meilianda agrees that more public training is still needed, but says the psychological legacy of 2004 is also to blame.

ELLA MEILIANDA: Suddenly, it happened again, and they got really traumatized, and they don't know what to do. It's just like blank. What we have learned also throughout almost 10 years now is that the recovery is more toward the physical recovery, reconstruction, but not really on the trauma healing itself. It still needs to be done in a more sustainable way.

KIRA KAY: Tour guide Lina is also a survivor. She finds a form of therapy through her work.

LINA HERLENA: At the beginning of working here, I felt like it was very hard to talk to other people, to answer the same questions about what happened to me at the time. I feel like I experienced flashbacks. But as the time goes on, it has really helped me to recover from the trauma.

KIRA KAY: Perhaps most startling in Aceh's story of recovery is the perspective Acehnese share: that the tsunami, for all its destruction, also had a silver lining. It ended 30 years of civil war that had already torn apart society, leaving thousands dead and many people tortured by the occupying Indonesian military.

DR. ELLA MEILIANDA: It was kind of like almost endless. I mean, we never thought that it would end at some point. But because of the tsunami, then everybody stopped and think, OK, we have to stop this conflict. So this is really like a blessing in disguise for the Acehnese community.

KIRA KAY: Within months of the tsunami, the Indonesian government and separatist rebels signed a peace deal. The presence of aid organizations at the time kept Aceh open to the world and ensured the peace would hold.

On a beach that 10 years ago was littered with the debris of people's lives, the palm trees sheared off at the stump, Acehnese families today are enjoying a feeling of normality for the first time in decades, free from war, more prepared for disaster if it comes again, and grateful for the time they have now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another result of the tsunami in Aceh was the implementation of Sharia law in the province.

You can watch Kira's earlier report, where she gained special access to the area's religious police force, on our website. The stories were produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.

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