South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Vanished: villages, bridges swept away

1 January 2005

Airborne military patrols scouring the most inaccessible sections of Aceh province have discovered that entire swathes of land have been inundated and roads, villages and bridges have vanished.

Officials now estimate that more than 100,000 people may have perished in the region, and they have described the scene as catastrophic.

The toll is likely to climb even higher because so many affected areas are still out of the reach of search and rescue operations.

"The scale of devastation is huge, bigger than imagined," said Emil Agustiono, a government official helping co-ordinate the Aceh relief effort.

In Meulaboh, south-east of the provincial capital Banda Aceh in north Sumatra, rescuers reported that lagoons had formed where communities had disappeared.

Officials feared that 40,000 of the 120,000 residents of Meulaboh and the area around it could have died. The district is about 96 kilometres from the epicentre of Sunday's undersea earthquake.

The force of the tsunami swept the sea to the foot of mountains 1.5 kilometres inland, according to those who surveyed the area. Mangled cars litter streets and fishing boats are strewn on top of other debris. The city's maroon-domed mosque remains standing.

The first survivors were airlifted from Meulaboh to Banda Aceh late on Thursday. One woman, Epayani, 31, said the tsunami surged over the town moments after the earth tremors stopped. "I heard the sound of the wave," said Epayani, who uses only one name. "It was very loud. Imagine hearing the sound of a volcano erupting."

And while governments and international agencies work on an unprecedented tsunami recovery effort, in Aceh basic needs are still barely being met.

Indonesia announced yesterday it would host an international tsunami summit next Thursday, aimed at garnering more emergency aid for the region and to plan reconstruction needs. Distribution centres are being established at Medan on Sumatra, south of Aceh, and at U Tapao, a Thai air base used by the US during the Vietnam War.

The Indonesian Health Ministry reported it expects further increases in the death toll as officials struggle with the lack of infrastructure in Aceh province.

At least 500,000 people were displaced and 100,000 homes destroyed in Aceh, officials said.

A major highway to towns on the west coast is impassable, and there is no access by land.

Many local government officials were killed in the disaster, and authorities said others were missing or too traumatised to function. Officials said the Jakarta Government would send 300 workers from various ministries to replace them and re-establish government services.

Oliver Hall, head of the United Nations disaster assessment and co-ordination team in Indonesia, said local officials were "clearly in a state of great shock" and that "there's huge devastation in Banda Aceh and along the west coast".

"There's no extra water available," he added, warning that volunteers must bring their own provisions to the region. "There's no communication equipment available. There's no extra food available. It's a wasteland."

Mr Agustiono said: "In Meulaboh at night, it is completely dark, and the electrical grid will take three months to fully restore. In Calong, a town north of Meulaboh, only 5000 of 15,000 people were reported to have survived," he said.

In Banda Aceh, hungry crowds jostled aid workers who tried to deliver biscuits to relieve hunger. Some drivers dared not stop.

Alan Sipress and Ellen Nakashima,
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald

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