MAN POUNDS CONCRETE
Ed Wray  /  AP
An Acehnese man pounds concrete wreckage Friday to get the iron rebar, which he can sell for 600 rupiah (about 6 U.S. cents) per kilo in Banda Aceh.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/18/2005 5:15:41 PM ET 2005-02-18T22:15:41
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

The magnitude of the recovery process is enormous in Banda Aceh, the region worst hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Officials this week say that it's going to take at least five years to deal with the aftermath of the tidal wave that killed more than 166,000 and left thousands more homeless.

The government is already talking with Malaysia about building more than 100,000 new homes here and about building a sea wall, so something like the tsunami can’t happen again. It’s going to be a long and very, very extensive process.

So far, the government has gone ahead and built more than 300 interim housing camps for the almost half million left homeless here. Those are tin-roofed, wooden houses. They are definitely a step up from the tent cities; they are still here, but, many more people are being moved into these camps. At least 500 of those camps are planned.

Many people do want to get back to what remains of their property on the coast, but all that remains is really land. We went out Friday and pretty much as far as the eye could see — for almost a mile — there was almost only flat land. There were a couple of palms here and there, a couple of pines, I would say you could see maybe 30-40 homes that were damaged, but still standing.

Everything else had been washed away by the tsunami or knocked down in the intervening, almost two months, to clean up the area. It’s still a real mess.  

There are back hoes everywhere; I would say we must have seen at least 20 or 30 backhoes in a drive by the coast. There is a road out to where the water meets the land now, which is a bit further inland than it used to be.

It’s like a massive city dump. Dump trucks are coming in, filling in areas that were more or less washed away by the tsunami, dumping all of the debris.

As we were out wandering about, we saw an electricity generating ship that must have been 300-400 feet long and maybe five stories high. I don’t think anyone had seen it before, at least on television, back in the days immediately following the tsunami.

It’s a vessel that literally was washed in about a mile inland. It’s just huge. It plowed its way in and it’s sitting there as though it belonged there, but it’s on dry land right now.

Search continues
The search is still under way for bodies. We came across at least a dozen bodies being loaded onto one truck.

They were being taken out to a massive cemetery where we are told some 46,000 people are buried.

The grave is about 25 feet down from the surface. It is one of three mass graves in the area. No one has the time nor the ability to go about trying to identify the remains and obviously they are not in very good condition now. So, they are just being dumped in the plastic bags they were picked up in and then buried as soon as possible.

We spoke with a number of people here who are hoping not to abide by the government’s plans to try to relocate the surviving coastal dwellers inland.

This is what they are doing in Sri Lanka as well — they want to move people away from the coast so something like this doesn’t happen again. But, clearly people, whether fisherman or others who have lived there for generations, want to go back to what remains of their homes.

That’s going to be one of the main issues, just getting the money to come back. Just to rebuild even a small house is going to cost a lot of money

Health concerns
There were great worries about epidemics, in Sri Lanka, in Thailand, and here in Banda Aceh. None of those appear to have been realized. While malaria, dengue fever, and measles are all endemic here, we have not heard of any major spikes in the number of cases that have been reported so far.

There are still a lot of medical personnel here, many of them are saying that there is not enough for them to do, because most of those impacted by the tsunami either died or walked away.

There are obviously ongoing concerns and people are getting medical care that may not have been getting in recent years. A lot of inoculations are taking place, vaccinations against measles and other illnesses, and they are still keeping a very close eye for the potential outbreak of illnesses.

Strong coordination with aid organizations
In terms of aid, I don’t have specific figures, but there are a lot less planes flying into Banda Aceh. One of the main reasons for that is just the cost, as well as the fact that there are already approximately 150 non-governmental aid organizations working here.

I’ve been told that all of the different organizations are working in pretty good coordination, considering the large number and the massive task ahead of them.

One of the biggest challenge is getting aid out to the 200 miles of the west coast of Sumatra — the worst hit areas — where there are still some 30 bridges damaged as well as many washed-out roads.

The World Food Program has two landing craft that they use to bring food to areas that are difficult to reach. They’ve also got a number of helicopters here; I believe it’s more than a dozen now that are still flying missions. They are supported by a number of other international aid organizations and the military.

The U.S. still has a presence here, but that is being scaled back.

The USS Essex — an amphibious assault vessel — is still offshore, six or seven weeks after it arrived. A U.S. naval ship is here, a converted supertanker that has doctors on board as well as navy personnel and a 1,000 beds. But in a good sign, we are being told only about 60 of the beds are being used right now. So, the medical issues seem to being dealt with better than expected.

Stoic spirit carries the day
Since today was Friday, prayer day in this region, in the afternoon we saw many people coming out with cameras, taking pictures of that large ship I mentioned, taking pictures of the devastation. People were also going out to look at their homes and to clean up the graves.

We met another family which lost two sons and another daughter. They are planning to move back to their home next week — without electricity, without water. They'll get a generator, but they say they have to stay by their home because it’s the source of many happy memories for them. 

What I am most amazed by is the stoicism of the people here. I have to think personally about myself, if someone close to me died, how I would react, and I don’t think that I could have recovered in this space of time, if ever.

But, you speak with people here, and they continually speak about the need to go forward and move on, to not look at the negatives of the past and the tragedy of this recent past here, but to get on with rebuilding their lives. It’s amazing to speak with people here and see how mentally strong they are.

There is still obvious sadness. Everyday in the newspaper here, you see advertisements with the word for “seeking” and showing photographs of people still missing. There are so many who still hope against hope that loved one may have survived and may be in a different refugee camp or may have gone to a different city and don’t know how to find their relatives.

There are many people still suffering very, very deeply from this.

Ned Colt is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

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