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Revisiting the tsunami zone one year later

The tsunami killed one out of every three people in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. A third of the population — simply gone. Half a million people remain on food aid. NBC's Brian Williams reports on the progress one year later.

One year ago tonight, we were on the air, live, from a broken piece of pavement in a very sad country on the other side of the world.

We went to cover the epicenter of the tsunami, in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra. It was a 44-hour journey. We saw things we never thought we'd see again.

The tsunami killed one out of every three people in Banda Aceh. A third of the population — simply gone. Half a million people remain on food aid.

When we arrived a year ago, a young man named Ashari became our guide. He reluctantly told us his own sister was missing in the tsunami.

"My lovely, my lovely sister, you know?" he said.

And everywhere we went with him, he would see reminders of his sister. Ashari never found her. A year later, she is listed among the missing, along with 20,000 others, missing and feared dead.

This return visit, though, a year later, we found signs of life emerging. A big example is the fishing industry. A year ago, the locals believed the fish were tainted because they'd been mingling in the water with the bodies of the dead who floated out to sea. But superstitions have subsided. Fishing vessels are being repaired and sent back out.

And the city has cleaned up. The boat we found deposited bizarrely in front of a downtown hotel back then is now gone.

But what we could not know back then was how much we'd be reminded of Banda Aceh in the United States, after Katrina. The similarities are striking. And like the Gulf Coast, people are still working hard in Banda Aceh to rebuild.

"It's biblical," says Michael Bak, an aid worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "It's hard to describe unless you see it. A city of several hundred thousand people, Banda Aceh, is, you know, 60 percent destroyed. Buildings, neighborhoods — gone."

A year ago, Bak was six days into his mission when we met him at Camp Banda Aceh.

"Along the coast, it's as if you've taken an eraser and just erased out part of the coastline," he said then.

Today, he's still working, rebuilding water systems and entire communities. And he's learned the local language.

Suddenly, the world is smaller. Americans — and the people of this remote region — have a lot in common.

Like Americans in the storm zone, Ashari's life has changed forever. He's lost his home, his sister and his grandparents. These days, he's working to raise his own three children.

And how have things changed in Banda Aceh? Efforts to get people to live farther away from the water's edge have largely failed, because fishermen want to be near their boats at night. On the upside: there are new tsunami warning sirens, and high hopes that the system works.