Ten Years Later: “Build Back Better” Together
by Robert O. Blake
On this day ten years ago, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a devastating tsunami, taking the lives of an estimated 170,000 Indonesians in Aceh Province. Today in Aceh during a remembrance ceremony, I joined Indonesian leaders, and members of the international community to collectively take a moment to recognize the strong, vibrant Aceh that we’ve rebuilt together, and an Aceh free from conflict, an amazing story of success.
When large-scale disasters hit far from home, the United States Government demonstrates its best, providing immediate search and rescue teams and disaster relief. Within hours of the tsunami’s strike early in the morning in 2004, the U.S. Mission in Indonesia established a crisis response team to serve as the on-the-ground command center for the United States’ relief efforts, with all hands pitching in. The team gathered information, ensured the safety of all Americans in the affected areas, while others provided direct aid in Aceh, and organized supplies to dispatch via military aircraft.
The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln immediately was deployed to Aceh followed by a hospital ship, the USNS Mercy. This humanitarian mission called Operation “Unified Assistance” was notable for its innovative disaster recovery strategy in which the U.S. government employed both military personnel and American civilians, with some 200 health care professionals recruited by health NGO Project HOPE, treating 9,500 Indonesians ashore and aboard the Mercy until mid-March 2005.
USAID assisted over 580,000 victims through the delivery of much needed supplies, infrastructure reconstruction, and psycho-social assistance.
Overall, the United States provided $400 million to the multi-national tsunami recovery effort.
When the immediate disaster recovery stage moved to reconstruction assistance, we worked with Indonesia to make long-term infrastructure improvements. One of the notable projects was USAID’s contribution to the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, built through the sharing of technical expertise and guidance from American scientists. The end result is an early warning system that benefits all countries in the Indian Ocean region. USAID also built a 146 km highway from Aceh to Calang, reducing a 12-hour travel time to 3.5 hours, which generates jobs in affected communities and promotes commerce.
We will continue to carry out programs and partner with Aceh in development.
On a people-to-people level, we have strengthened ties with the Acehnese, with dozens of Fulbright Scholars, International Visitor Leadership Program participants, and YES Program participants — ranging from high school students to mid-level professionals — participating in U.S. Government-sponsored exchange programs.
Together, we’ve also improved access to quality education whether through the support of USINDO — one of the best examples of people to people and think tank coordination, run by former senior politicians and diplomats from Indonesia and the United States — or through the establishment of Aceh Polytechnic. The institution came to be with the commitment of land by Aceh, the contribution of the building by Chevron, and the initial equipment and staffing paid for by USAID.
Ten years later, we look back to remember the lives lost, honor the survivors, salute the heroes, and reflect on the power of the human spirit. Muhrizal Hamzah, a State Alumni member and senior reporter from Aceh, notes: “The people of Aceh, especially the tsunami survivors, will always appreciate the United States for being the first country to assist Aceh. Survivors, immediately think of the United States and things such as ‘aircraft carrier’, ‘hospital ship’, and ‘U.S. troops’ in a positive way, when they think of disaster assistance.”
We celebrate how much Aceh has developed and look forward to what the community of nations can accomplish when it works together towards a common goal to “Build Back Better.”