Tsunami Anniversary Marked With Sadness and Thanks

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Millions of people across Asia marked the one-year anniversary of the tsunami disaster on Monday, remembering the lives lost; acknowledging achievements in rebuilding and the challenges still ahead; and voicing appreciation for the extraordinary support from the outside world.

An underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesian Sumatra on Dec. 26 set off massive waves across the Indian Ocean that crashed into coastlines from Asia to East Africa. More than 220,000 people were killed and 2.1 million others left homeless in 12 countries. Almost 40,000 people are still unaccounted for.

"Nature is an awesome force and it can inflict great tragedy, yet throughout history, humanity has come back from fire and flood to build anew," President Bush said in a videotaped message, broadcast during an emotion-laden service in the Indonesian province of Aceh.

The ceremony was held on the still-ravaged outskirts of the capital, Banda Aceh, where a minute's silence was observed at 8.16 AM, exactly one year on from the time the first waves hit.

Aceh was the area worst affected by the disaster, with almost 160,000 people dead or missing.

Bush praised Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- who faced the crisis just two months after taking office -- for providing "steady leadership" and the Indonesian people for their resilience.

He also thanked American military personnel, government agencies, volunteers and private citizens for their response to the tragedy.

"It made a huge difference that the world came to our aid," Yudhoyono said in an address to the nation, delivered at the same ceremony.

He cited "the largest military operation for humanitarian relief since World War II" as well as record financial contributions from non-governmental agencies and private donors.

As citizens from countries across the globe contributed, he said, "their compassion cut across religious, racial, and cultural lines, uniting them in global solidarity."

According to the State Department, the U.S. government has provided $841 million for tsunami relief and reconstruction, while more than $1.8 billion in private contributions came from American citizens.

Three days after the tsunami, U.S. forces were deployed to the three hardest-hit countries, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The aircraft carrier USS Lincoln was based off Aceh for a month, and airlifts delivered millions of pounds of food, water, medicines and relief materials to the stricken region.

As it departed in February, the carrier was replaced by the hospital ship USNS Mercy, for continuing medical and humanitarian operations.

Other nations to contribute military personnel and aid included Australia - whose one billion Australian dollar aid package was the largest in the country's history - as well as Japan and France.

'Herculean task'

One of the major achievements of the post-tsunami effort was the prevention of outbreaks of epidemics. Health experts had feared that disease could cost thousands more lives in the days and weeks that followed the disaster.

Less pleasing is the fact that despite the overwhelming response from governments, agencies and individuals around the world -- $13.6 billion in donations was pledged --1.4 million of those who were left homeless are still living in tents or other temporary shelters.

In the view of many critics, movement in Indonesia has been too slow.

In his address, Yudhoyono urged people to look "beyond the rubble" and see the progress that was being made.

More than 5,000 homes are being built each month, he said.

Roads, hospitals, ports and fishing boats are also being rebuilt, and villages are slowly taking shape. Children are back at school, farmers back in their fields, and tens of thousands of people are undergoing training to go back to work.

The effort is being coordinated by a Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency, headed by a top official reputed for integrity in a country where bureaucratic corruption has been endemic.

In an editorial Monday, the Jakarta Post noted the scale of the catastrophe in Aceh.

"Half-a-million people were left homeless, an 800-kilometer-long band of Aceh's western coastline was devastated, 3,000 kilometers of road were damaged, 2,000 schools were destroyed and 60,000 hectares of agricultural land were ravaged," it said.

"One year is too short a time to complete a Herculean task. A lot of challenges and hard work lie ahead. Frustration may not be far below the surface, but the government has made the right start."

Early warning

Indonesia on Monday tested the beginnings of a tsunami warning system for the first time, with shoreline sirens sending people hastening along pre-arranged routes to high-lying ground.

Unlike the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean does not have a comprehensive tsunami early-warning system. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission (IOC) is working towards setting one up.

Between May and September, IOC teams carried out assessments in 16 Indian Ocean countries, to see how they were doing and what they would need in order to set up a regional tsunami warning system.

The teams found that while most countries had strengthened their disaster management laws and mechanisms, few of them had developed tsunami-specific emergency and evacuation plans, or tested response procedures for tsunamis or earthquakes.

According to a report released earlier this month, few of the 16 countries operate national tsunami warning centers or have the capacity to receive or produce seismic or sea-level data.

But with the exception of Somalia, all of them receive international tsunami warnings from Pacific institutions, based in Hawaii and Japan.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow