On Dec. 26, 2004, at least 230,000 people died when the second-largest earthquake in recorded history erupted beneath the Indian Ocean, triggering a devastating series of waves. Places as far apart as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Somalia were affected. Nearly two-thirds of those who perished were from the Indonesian province of Aceh.
I worked in Aceh with the International Rescue Committee, a global relief organization founded by, among others, Albert Einstein after the Second World War. After seeing the devastation, I was struck by how our notions of stability stem from our relationship with solid earth: Well grounded. Good foundation. Solid as a rock. The tsunami and the earthquakes that proceeded — and followed — unmasked this notion. Entire communities were literally erased. Those that remained suffered aftershocks and persistent tremors for months on end.
People had to find stability elsewhere.
At a village near the town of Darussalam, much of the land that people inhabited had been washed away. The villagers had settled on a narrow strip near a gravel road that jutted into the sea. There, I met one of the fishermen: Yatim and his 4-year-old son, Mauldi. At 35, Yatim had chocolate skin and strong shoulders. But his body was no match for a wave that pummeled him with such a force that he was barely conscious when it was finished. First, it ripped his wife and children from his arms. Then it stripped him of his clothing. He remembers tumbling through the wave from the bottom to the surface like a sock in a washing machine. Pieces of wood and brick pounded against him. It was dark and he saw nothing. Water filled with debris and muck filled his lungs. There was no thinking, just the haphazard movement of arms and legs. And then, just as suddenly, he was on top of the water. He reached up. Men on a bridge plucked him from the torrent, carried him to a local restaurant and laid him on a table.
After gathering a bit of strength, Yatim went looking for his family. And when he could not find them, he heard the muezzin call and went to the mosque to pray. Yatim thought he had lost everyone that day. But he hadn’t lost his son. Mauldi, had managed to hang on to a plank of wood and ride the wave for about two and a half miles inland. A man saw the boy on the board just as the wave subsided. He picked Mauldi from the side of a bluff and took him to the mosque where his father was praying. There, he heard his son’s voice. As the two embraced, Yatim stammered, “Long life to you son.”
I’ve always believed in clichés about stability and strength and being grounded in the earth. But listening to Yatim, I learned that there is another kind of balance unrelated to the position and movement of terrain. As he told his story, Yatim was surrounded by his community. He would begin a sentence and they would finish it; it was as if his story was all of their stories. Mauldi’s story became their story, too: that of the boy who surfed the tsunami.
The lattice of reconstruction is a delicate thing. In the beginning, it is cobbled together from the collection of small necessities. At first, Yatim could not think about big things because that would make him weep. Instead, he focused on the day-by-day construction of his new home. First, he found planks of wood in the flooded field. He searched for nails in the debris. And then one day while walking in the flooded ruins, he found a net still in good condition. With it, he could return to the sea.
Five years later, the tsunami reminds us of what we Americans are also capable of. Like the villagers I met, we created a network of stability for the victims of the tsunami. In the two years after the tsunami, Americans donated more than $3 billion for humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts – almost half the global total. The IRC alone trained hundreds of community health workers and provided clean drinking water to more than 150,000 people. Organizations such as the International Red Cross constructed tens of thousands of homes and hundreds of schools. The devastation taught us lessons about how we should best organize our responses to natural disasters. We learned how to better empower the victims of catastrophe to rebuild their lives and reconstitute their livelihoods.