The Disaster
The 2004 Indonesian Tsunami, also known as the Indian Ocean Tsunami, was one of the worst modern day natural disasters to occur in recent history. One of the largest earthquakes, named the Indian Ocean Earthquake, in recorded history, caused the tsunami. The earthquake occurred early in the morning of December 26, 2004, just off the coast of Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. The earthquake was caused by the sliding of the India tectonic plate under the Burma plate, causing a 9.2 magnitude earthquake about one hundred miles west of Sumatra and almost 20 miles below sea level.
The movement of such a huge amount of land caused a displacement of a massive amount of water causing multiple tsunamis heading in every direction along this long underwater rift. While there were tsunamis heading in every direction, the ones heading east, towards Sumatra, and west, towards India, Sri Lanka, and Africa, were many times stronger than the ones heading north and south.
The strength of these expanding waves were of such strength as to cause fluctuations in tide levels as far away as the America's West and East Coasts, however, Indonesia was that hardest hit country, as its high population and proximity to the epicenter of the earthquake caused it to suffer the full force of the waves. In Indonesia one of the hardest hit cities was Banda Aceh, which was only 155 miles away from the earthquakes epicenter.
While Banda Aceh was the closest major city to the disaster, smaller more rural towns and cities, such as Sibolga, suffered almost complete annihilation of many of it’s buildings and residencies. However, Banda Aceh still accounted for many of the over one hundred thousand deaths in Indonesia. Because of the massive amounts of destruction caused by the tsunami an exact death count was and still is almost impossible. While immediately after the disaster there were millions displaced or missing, which made estimations of the true number of dead very difficult. Even today there are still many missing who we can only assume were swept out to sea and drowned. Most estimations put the death toll at around the upper two-hundred thousands.

In some areas in Indonesia, waves were reported as high as fifteen meters tall, roughly fifty feet. The Indonesian locals accounted for a large amount of the casualties, but there was still a large amount of tourists that accounted for a decent percent of those lost. Many of the tourists were visiting Indonesia and the surrounding countries because they are very popular to European tourists. The huge death toll was cause by many factors, including the large population of Muslims, the early morning hour of the disaster in Indonesia, and the lack of tsunami knowledge, being a few.
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The Muslim community, which is known for it’s strict public behavior codes of it’s women, makes up a huge percent of the population of Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims than any other country in the world. Added to the fact that Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world makes for a large population of Muslims, who were at risk, especially the women who were not allowed to know how to swim. Also, because many women were afraid to wander outside without an escort they were trapped in their homes.
The early morning hour of the disaster caused a lot of casualties. The earthquake happened at 7:58 AM and caused fifteen smaller earthquakes. These seismic activities lasted for around ten minutes. At this time it was not morally respectable for many individuals to be outside of their residencies. Many people, children and women, were indoors when the tsunami struck and were thus trapped and drowned in their own homes. Over one-third of those killed in the disaster were children, and as many as four times more women than men. The reason behind the large percent of children was mainly written off to their inquisitive nature, as they would not understand why the sea was receding and would go down to the beach.

Any time a disaster like a tsunami strikes a highly populated area there are bound to be a huge number of casualties, however there are simple things that can be done to lessen those numbers. If the signs of a tsunami are noticed and respected then running for higher ground can increase your chances for survival, as noted in a few cases during this disaster. There was a few incidents where a few members of society realized what the receding sea signified and warned surrounding people and rounded up friends and family while retreating to higher elevation. The damage was especially disastrous on those living in the low lands whose low level of tsunami warnings awareness caused high casualty rates. Unfortunately, many were not so informed and were so intrigued by the novelty of the retreating sea that they wandered out on to the now exposed seafloor just minutes before the waves struck. However, as noted, there were instances where some victims to the tsunami were able to get to higher ground. These random instances were discovered to mostly occur in more rural regions, where ancestral memory of similar disasters had caused the local community to flee for higher ground during the initial tremors. The large amount of beaches along the Indonesian coastline were the location of many tourist and vacationer's casualties, where again the lack of basic tsunami knowledge caused many bystanders to gather and watch the receding sea, thus adding to the high death count. Even those lucky enough to survive the first wave were not always safe. Many who survived, believing that the worse was over, walked back to the seashore and were struck by the next series of tsunamis.

Disaster Relief

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While being one of the most horrifying modern day natural disasters to occur in human history, Indonesia and its surrounding countries were not long in receiving aid from other nations. Neighboring countries that were not hit as hard quickly began organizing support almost the very day of the earthquake. However, news of the disaster was slow to reach other countries not affected by the tsunamis. Since the disaster occurred on December 26, 2004, local time, in Indonesia, it was still December 25th in the Americas, which is a major religious holiday, practiced by many of its Christian citizens and government workers. Because many key members of government were on vacation at the time, most of them were receiving their information from press reports, which were reporting only ten thousand casualties throughout the entire region. While this greatly slowed the United States involvement in the relief aid, relief from other countries, such as the Australian Defense Force, landed in Banda Aceh as early as December 28th. Singapore managed to get their first relief flights to Aceh Province a close 2nd on the 30th of December.

The United States were not kept in the dark for long, even though initial reports greatly underestimated the disaster the U.S. Navy had begun moving. Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of the PACOM, and Walter Doran, commanding the Pacific Fleet, who were both stationed in Honolulu, quickly authorized the movement of ships toward the disaster scene upon first learning of the disaster. Perhaps their location within the Pacific Ring of Fire, the title given to the high seismic activity areas of the Pacific, gave them better knowledge of what to expect when dealing with tsunamis. In fact, because of the holidays and with Washington decision-making had ground to a standstill, the two officers took advantage of the lack of interference to push through their commands. Allowing PACOM to begin tentatively moving towards Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004.

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Even on the 27th of December, the official estimates of the dead were still only suggesting upwards of 13,500 people, which was only a fraction of the actual count. Over the three days after the disaster, information very quickly expanded with aid from locals who posted videos and information on websites, and from contact with first relief organizations. On the 27th of December, when American newspapers and television stations began to report the true scope of the disaster, President Bush authorized the Pentagon to initiate a humanitarian disaster relief operation. Which, by this time, was already underway in the fact that U.S. Navy ships were already moving towards Southeast Asia. On 28th of December, PACOM (U.S. Pacific Command) established the Joint Task Force (JTF) 536 under the command of Lieutenant General Robert R. Blackman, Jr.
The Join Task Force 536 was initially set up at Utapao, Thailand, which was an obvious choice because of numerous combined U.S.-Thai exercises that took place there. Allowing for a comfortable movement of U.S. forces through the base and on to disaster locations. Lieutenant General Blackman was very ready to admit to a lack of information regarding the full extent of the disaster and damages. Thanks to initial commands for the U.S. Navy to head in that direction, the first elements of JTF 536 began to arrive in Utapao on the 28th of December. By the 29th, the first disaster relief assessment teams had already arrived in their respective areas. Also on the 29th, the first P-3 reconnaissance flight took off to survey the disaster areas. On the 30th of December, the first relief flight brought supplies into the region, and by the 31st the first helicopter relief flights were operational.
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These first elements paved the way for the main body of JTF 536, which arrived on the 2nd of January 2005. On the 3rd of January, PACOM changed the JTF 536 name to Combined Support Force (CSF) 536, to better reflect the multinational nature of the operation that was quickly including, not only U.S. military forces, but also forces from Australia, Japan, Singapore, Russia, France, and Malaysia.
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While more military aid arrived from other countries to Indonesia, a general call for financial aid went out. Unfortunately, because of the initial underestimation of the disaster, the amount of money initially pledged for financial relief was pretty low. However, as the death toll rose, new financial relief aid amounts rose along with it. Where originally the amount pledged was only U.S. $100 million, it quickly was increased exponentially. The United States government received both international and local criticism during the financial pledges for not putting enough money towards the disaster relief. With the UN’s emergency relief coordinator issuing an estimation of $15 billion to deal with the disaster the day after the tsunami, President Bush made his first public statement and pledged a measly $15 million in aid. By this time, the 29th, the magnitude of the disaster was far better understood and his offer was highly criticized. Shortly after the amount was raised to $35 million with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, considering the damages and loss of life, this amount was also highly rebuked. By the 31st of December, after a lot of international criticism, the amount pledged was raised to $350 million in relief. On the 4th of January 2005, it was noted that Japan had contributed $500 million with the United States pledging $350 million. However, this was all official aid that was supplied by the government. The amount of money the governments contributed to the disaster was almost paltry in comparison to the public donations offered by the citizens of many countries. By the two year anniversary the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University said that U.S. private tsunami donations, both cash and aid, had reached more than U.S. $1.8 billion, and a conservative estimation by Tsunami Evaluation Coalition of U.S. $ 13.5 billion from international sources. The damage in Indonesia was so severe that even these high amounts have only done so much for the country. In fact, the disaster was so damaging that only recently has most of the aid troops been withdrawn by the United States on the 16th of October 2009.

Politics Surrounding Indonesia Before And After The Tsunami
Indonesia has long been an object of political notice for the United States in Southeast Asia. During the Cold War, Indonesia was a very important strategic asset under the rule of Suharto in 1965. Suharto’s heavy handed rule was only supported by the U.S for it’s desire to contain Communism. Suharto’s interest in broadening the economy of Indonesia was also greatly supported by the United States. His interest in pushing for foreign direct investment in Indonesia was a plan the U.S. government whole-heartedly supported. However, after the Cold War, there was a loss of military aid between the U.S. and Indonesia. Growing rifts between the U.S. military came to head with the cancellation of joint military exercises and commercial sales in 1999, and the suspension of all military assistance in 2001. This separatism was furthered by the lack of cooperation from the Indonesian military in investigating the murders of two American citizens in August 2002. This rift began during the end of Suharto’s rule and was further aided along by his resignation in 1998.

However, before the disaster there was a growing desire to reconnect with Indonesia for various political reasons. These were not heavily pursued at the time, probably because the U.S. was hoping for a political opportunity in which to communicate with Indonesian high command. In October 2004, just months before the tsunamis would devastate the shores of Indonesia, the first ever direct elected President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was sworn into office. This was a highly anticipated event for the U.S. who, now more than ever, desired to repair old political wounds. When the tsunami hit the main coasts of Indonesia it opened the political doors between Indonesia and many other countries, with the United States just waiting for the opportunity.

While the relief aid was greatly carried out by the PACOM, there was still tension between the United States and Indonesia considering military aid. In early 2006 the United States made a political move to correct this. PACOM donated over $11 million worth of hospital equipment to Indonesia to set up a full-scale military hospital to increase the disaster relief capability of the Indonesian military. This act was the first major military exchange since the United States had lifted the 2001 embargo restricting military assistance in November 2005. The U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia quoted that, “It symbolizes the long-standing friendship and growing military cooperation between our two nations” (“U.S. Pacific Command Donates Hospital Equipment to Indonesia”). This sudden act of military cooperation may have been brought on by the May 2005 visit of President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono with George Bush. Immediately afterwords the Bush administration relaxed the restrictions on military aid by allowing the sale of non-lethal defense equipment.

The location and demography of Indonesia holds many reasons for the United States to be interested in forming positive relations. It’s high Muslim population allowed for extremists to form roads to the Middle East, making Indonesia a key location in Bush’s war on terror. It’s highly trafficked sea lanes provide large amounts of shipping between many of the Southeast Asian countries and the rest of the world. Because of the possible extremists in that country there was a growing desire to encourage the local Indonesian military to crack down on possible weapon and drug smuggling coming to and from the Middle Eastern states. By encouraging military cooperation between the largest Muslim populated country in the world and the United States there would be benefits for the U.S. in cutting down on supporters of extremists; by both cutting down on funds, weapons, and support, and by building better political bonds. While there are continued issues between Indonesian and American officials about the approach to fighting terrorism, as the Indonesian Defense Minister had pointed out that the U.S. approach was overbearing and that the U.S. needed to be more sensitive to local concerns, there is still planning for many joint activities underway.

After The Tsunami: Lessons learned?

After the tsunamis there was a growing call for a tsunami early warning system. While some people, like Greg Bankoff, believed that more information concerning possible local disasters would aid more than any warning system, there was still a growing demand for a system that would warn minutes, if not hours, in advance. A predicted system of setting up GPS buoys to detect the slight, sometimes just around a foot, difference in ocean waves, and setting up a tide gauge, to notify when the severe drop in water front sea levels dropped. This system was just the basics of what many hoped would be a way of knowing of an approaching tsunami while it was still hundreds of miles from shore. The hopeful project went on to include pressure sensors on the ocean floor, to detect changes in the depth of the ocean floor, and a seismometer, all connected by GPS and communication satellites to warn cities of the approaching danger.

The United States signed an agreement in February of 2007, between the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Indonesian Agency for Assessment and Applications of Technology, to donate $1 million to develop this system. This is another sign of the growing interaction between Indonesia and the U.S. towards bettering their political relationship. However, it should be noted that tsunamis in the Indian Ocean are relatively rare, at least in human memory. Tsunamis are more often known to occur in the Pacific Ocean, though each ocean has been known to produce at least one. The hope is for the system to be developed by the latest nation to be hit by this disaster, Indonesia, and for it later to be applied to the more active Pacific Ocean, where the chances are much higher for the disaster to occur.

While this new technological feat would save countless lives once it has been developed, the important thing is what countries are doing now. After the destruction of so many villages and towns along the western coast of Sumatra, many cities, Banda Aceh included, have started local tsunami drills, where the residents are taught to run to higher ground or to seek shelter in a tall, earthquake safe building. The huge amount of media coverage concerning the Indonesian tsunami has heightened worldwide awareness of this disaster once more, causing more coastal regions to reassess the possible threat of them being hit by the next big wave.


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Telford, John, and John Cosgrave. "The international humanitarian system and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunamis". 18 November 2009

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