January 19, 2005 —
Banda Aceh in ruins.
Day One: January 3, 2005
Landing in Medan, on the northeast coast of Sumatra, I’m with a National Geographic-sponsored production company. They have done an incredible job of logistical
support and planning for this trip. There are three vans waiting to meet us at
the airport. There are about eight support guys, with full camping, cooking and
survival gear. Our objective is to drive the coast road from Medan to Banda Aceh
the hardest hit region from the tsunami. I believe I will be the first scientist
to get into the area so I really owe these guys a lot for letting me tag along.
We’re off the plane and Dan Cesareo; the National Geographic contact (and a keen surfer with extensive Indonesia experience as it turns out)
is in control of the logistics. He gets us hustled through customs and out to
the waiting vans without a hitch. The rest of the production team consists of
Jeff Swimmer a TV producer from Santa Monica and Jeff Streich a cameraman from
Portland, Oregon. The Indonesian team is Mustika from Bali, Jack from Medan and
two executive security guys from Jakarta, Gunawan and Zull. There were about
five other guys whose names I never got, drivers, a cook and a mechanic. The
National Geographic guys questioned the need for a mechanic, but for two vans and a bus traveling
through an area with rebels and mountain roads, they were convinced it was a good
Driving out of Medan takes over an hour. The city streets are loosely controlled
chaos. It’s absolute insanity. It looked like a disaster area, but the earthquake
and tsunami were not even a factor here. I had only been to Indonesia once before,
on a tsunami reconnaissance trip to Biak Island in Irian Jaya on the Pacific side
of Indonesia, so I’d never experienced anything like this. There were cars and
minibikes and scooters and three wheeled carts all buzzing around inches from
the window. It would be nonstop cars, yet people would casually cross the street
in a slow stroll as if they weren’t about to get run over by a van full of TV
guys on their way to a disaster zone.
Looking towards the ocean from the bridge.
Several hours driving eventually gets us to the town of Idi. There is a bridge
over a large river with many brightly colored boats. A few have sunk. We stop
while the National Geographic crew shoots some scenes. I use the chance to ask
the boatmen if the tsunami surge came up the river. They said it did and that
it had sunk a few boats and killed some people further up stream. The surge height
was estimated at only about three feet, but they say it was much worse out on
the beach on the open coast.
Going back to the car, we got a little surprise when the driver tried to start
it up. Just a click and buzz and some weird clanking noise. Oh great… things
got a little hairier when we smelled smoke and saw wispy curls of white coming
out from under the front seat in the engine compartment. I casually grab my bags
from the car and step away from the vehicle… Good thing for that mechanic. Turned
out the problem was a just loose battery terminal and the smoke was just some
grease on the battery. He got it sorted out while I jumped in the other van and
we headed out to the beach.
We took the long bumpy beach road a few kilometers out to the coast. It definitely
was a lot worse. The waves came in about 500 meters with a height of some two
meters. They destroyed several of the poorly built front row houses. A prawn
hatchery was on the front row, but the locals said the water didn’t come up high
enough to spill into the hatching tanks. I took data while the National Geographic guys filmed. It took us a while and we didn’t leave until almost dark. We still
had100 windy kilometers to go to the town where we hoped to sleep.
Salvaging what they can.
Now, driving in Mexico is a bad idea, mostly because of the odd bandito or a
herd of cows sleeping in the road. The stories, especially the bandito stories
are usually hearsay and several years old. But here in northern Sumatra’s Aceh
Province, the problem is armed separatist rebels and it is very
real. We ask about the supposed cease-fire as a result of the tsunami, and
the local guys all kind of laugh like “yeah right…”
But the stretch we have to run is considered safe and we go for it. No problems.
We see only one or two armed patrols of Indonesian army dudes and every town has
at least a few tanks, armored personnel carriers and machine gun nests on the
side of the road. We make it to a hotel in Lhoksumave and crash for the night.
The bed, bucket shower and quasi-AC were exactly what my body and brain needed
to get refreshed for what I’d have to deal with in the next few days.
Day Two: January 4, 2005
We are awakened at 5:30 a.m. to news that the rebels have attacked a convoy in
the mountains north of us where we needed to go. Apparently they were shot back
by the Indonesian army. We load up, set up our gear for the day and we’re off
by 6:30 am.
It is a long day of driving with one hard data point, but even that one was too
big to be measured properly. We stopped and measured in the town of Panteraja.
I could only survey the line up through the back of the village, after that the
wave just kept going for hundreds of yards across rice fields. From the last
house the end of the rice field I just measured by GPS.
Everyone was stressed and pressed for time worrying about getting through the
mountains before sunset and getting to Banda Aceh to do some filming before nightfall.
The road was windy and went up and over some high mountains. This was rebel country.
The trip was uneventful, except for the monkeys on the side of the road. We threw
some candy bars at them and they knew exactly what to do.
A survivor tells the story of losing his entire family.
Coming into Banda Aceh was surreal. It was sunny but hazy; a stiff wind was
blowing dust everywhere. The first signs of catastrophe were some collapsed buildings,
but given that it was a magnitude 9 earthquake, things looked okay. As we got
closer to the center of town, the disaster became more and more obvious, buildings
down, cracks in walls. Then we got to the Grand Mosque. There were piles of
debris left over from the tsunami and a thin layer of mud everywhere. Bulldozers
were moving things around. The tower at the front of the grand mosque was cracked
and leaning. The tsunami had deposited debris here at the mosque and we were
from the open ocean. The words ‘war zone’ barely did the scene justice, but
it wasn’t even close to what I would see next and over the next few days. The
wind was blowing hot, humid and dusty.
We took the cars over to a riverfront area. This scene was truly mind-blowing.
The wave simply unleashed on the entire city. I can’t even imagine how it all
EVERYTHING WAS COMPLETELY MESSED UP.
Boats were twisted and smashed and piled up on top of the bridge where we were
standing. I couldn’t stop saying “Oh my god…” There were piles of debris 20 or
30 feet high, there were bodies in the piles, legs and arms sticking out. Based
only on the smell, there had to be three bodies I didn’t see for every one I did
I walked around with the National Geographic guys and tried to focus on taking data, flow depths, locations, building damage,
but I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction. Every time
we turned a corner I would see something else completely amazing. I’d see a pile
of debris and it would take me a few minutes to realize that there was a boat
on top of it and a body at the bottom.
The big support van had gone ahead and set up camp in Banda Aceh. The only place
to sleep was out on the grass at the Governor’s compound. The place was totally
surreal. Chaos. This was where every journalist was staying. All the big news
guys were there; CNN, CBS, Fox. I probably should have gone around and pimped myself out as the ‘tsunami scientist’,
well I did a little bit, but I didn’t try very hard. I don’t know, news and media
people kind of bum me out. I think the job should be left to the scientists and
the relief workers. It depressed and saddened me that the only way a legit scientist
could get into Banda Aceh was by hooking up with a TV crew. What’s wrong with
The support crew cooked dinner for us and, well, it was great. We slept comfortably
in tents, unlike the thousands of displaced people scattered in refugee camps
around the area. Sometime in that first night a big aftershock hit. I was under
the influence of a sleeping pill and barely noticed. I heard people yelling ‘earthquake!!!!”
I think I woke up for a minute or two and saw one of the National Geographic guys with his head outside the tent. I thought this was funny, because we were
in the safest place outdoors in a tent. I just rolled over and went back to sleep.
The next day we noticed that there was a large heavy TV antenna mounted on a 10
ft pole stuck loosely in the planter box that was above our tent. If that thing
were to come down on you in your sleep, I think it would hurt.
Day Three: January 5, 2005
Boats slammed into a bridge in central Banda Aceh.
We spent the morning touring Banda Aceh, walking the town as far out towards
the sea as I could. I walked with Gunawan, our local Indonesian security expert.
He was a really cool guy who just exuded strength and confidence. He’s a martial
arts expert who did 25 years in the Indonesian army, rising to the rank of lieutenant
colonel in the Special Forces and Psychological Operations divisions. I had to
ask a lot of questions to get him to talk, but we got along well and he was really
helpful with my data collection. Somehow we ended up working together the day
before. I guess between the two security guys, Gunawan decided to keep track
of the scientist who was prone to wandering. The National Geographic guys would be stationary shooting a scene and I’d see something interesting and
just wander off to take a look or to photograph. Every time I’d turn around Gunawan
was there, making sure everything was cool. Eventually I got used to it and just
incorporated him into the data collection mission. I never felt any threat the
whole time I was in Banda Aceh, but news reports were continuously coming out
about shootings and rebels and all that, so I guess it was good he was around.
Plus he was a cool guy and we worked well together.
We walked from the river area to the north towards the open ocean. It was so
unreal, a beautiful sunny tropical day in Sumatra and we’re walking through a
place that used to be full of life, a complete city that was now nothing more
than rubble. One house in 20 was still partially standing. I went to each semi-intact
house and took a GPS location and tried to measure a flow depth by looking for
the mud marks on the walls, three meters, four meters, five meters, the numbers
kept getting higher as we got closer to the ocean. Every once in a while a dead
body would surprise me. Depending on the wind direction, we might smell it first.
One time I worked inspecting a house and kept smelling that sweetp-rotten smell,
but I couldn’t see the body. I descended the stairs and turned a corner and nearly
tripped over the bodies of a man and a woman. They were the neighbors of the house
we were in. At least that is what the man we just interviewed had said. He was
the brother of the owner of the house. He saw us crawling around the rubble and
came over to see what we were up to.
We walked back to where the National Geographic guys were filming, a squad of Indonesian soldiers showed up and started pulling
more bodies out of the rubble. I only saw one or two, but within a half hour
they had a pile of no-longer-empty body bags.
Later that afternoon I was able to sneak off with Jack, the Sumatran tour guide
from Medan who worked for the tour company that set up the travel logistics, Gunawan,
and one of the vans and drivers. We headed west to see the tsunami effects on
the open Indian Ocean side of Sumatra, the area directly facing the epicenter
of the earthquake. The waves should have been much bigger out there.
The very first bridge we came to over a medium sized river was about 300 yards
from the sea and completely blown apart. The remnants of the concrete and steel
decking were pushed upstream about 20 yards. There was another body floating
face down; bloated and legs spread apart in some of the debris.
Jose on the bridge.
The locals had constructed a crude platform raft from empty oil barrels and wooden
planks and we pulled ourselves across. I walked up the small rise on the other
side and could see a jetty in the distance with a freighter overturned on its
side. It looked to be quite a ways away, but after asking a local who said it
was only “one kilometer” we decided to try and walk as far as we could. The views
were amazing. It was hard to tell what had been there before, but there was nothing
there now. It looked like there used to be a town here. There were a bunch of
foundations and wall sections scattered on the ground. Huge Australian pine trees
had been up-rooted and tossed around. The ones that were still standing had the
bark uniformly stripped off to a level well above the five-meter staff that I
had. I measured the stripped off bark on one tree that was knocked over and it
was over 10 meters from the roots. This indicates that the water was flowing
at least 10 meters (33 ft!!!) deep at the shoreline.
Another strand of 40 or 50 trees had been uniformly snapped off at about five
meters high. This puzzled me at first, but then I noticed the huge coal barge
with the tugboat still attached that was a few hundred more meters down the beach.
The barge must have been swept across the trees and snapped them all off at that
height. We walked down to the barge and the thing was huge. It had to be 300
feet long. I probably should have paced it off to get a size estimate, but again,
I forgot…too many other things to see. I climbed up the hill to the line where
the trees had been snapped off and all of the topsoil and dirt were removed down
to bare rock. I estimate that the trees had been removed up to 20 meters elevation,
maybe more, but I couldn’t measure it precisely using the tools I had with me.
Looking down on the barge I could see that the coal had been swept off the deck
and that part of the railing wall that surrounded the coal load had been ripped
away and was dangling off the side.
We kept walking south along the beach until we came to a cement factory built
up on the beach. There was a steep hill behind the factory and it was obvious
that the wave had been through the factory. An oil storage tank was crumpled
and tilted to the side. There were some people who were running a relief shelter
to help transport the injured from one of the more distant villages. One of the
guys there told me that a navigational buoy from three kilometers offshore had
been ripped from it’s mooring and deposited in the factory. They said you could
see the light flashing at night.
I planned to come back the next day to accurately measure the runup line with
better equipment, but that turned out to be a mistake.
Day Four: January 6, 2005
Local girls near a refugee camp.
Today I headed east with Gunawan and the driver towards a small port and oil
transfer facility some 45 kilometers away. I was able to survey the port and
one location along the way. All along I was taking GPS locations and photographs.
On the way back I stepped out to take a photo of a demolished house, and nearly
tripped over a dead body wrapped in plastic. This was an outlying area of Banda
Aceh and the clean-up crews had not come through yet. I noticed that the number
of bodies on the side of the road had tripled in the hours since we drove past
this area on the way out to the port.
We made it back to base camp by noon, had a quick lunch then went back out towards
Lhoknga (where the barge was) to try and measure the tree line accurately. I
estimated it to be 20 – 25 m, but I wanted to measure it for sure.
We were running a bit late to meet the National Geographic guys and we found them waiting in the van on the side of the road. They flagged
us down and gave me the story:
While waiting at the ferry crossing over the river they heard gunfire, a squad
of Indonesian army guys had engaged some Acehnese rebels and were sweeping up
the beach. The camera crew moved back and started working on another story in
a village up the road. A few minutes later the conflict moved close to them again
and the Army troops began arresting locals suspected of being with the rebels.
By the time I caught up with them, they looked pretty shaken up.
National Geographic: Jeff Swimmer, Jeff Streich, Jose Borrero (USC), Dan Cesareo.
The rest of the afternoon was spent out at the waterfront. I was pretty bummed
for not getting to measure that data point. I did some measurements out at the
waterfront but it was pretty redundant work. I sat and waited for several hours
while National Geographic
shot a story around some survivors. Then I tagged along while they went with
survivors to a refugee camp to search for lost friends and family. Needless to
say I was disappointed in that afternoon. I was thinking I wouldn’t have enough
data points to make a decent report or paper and the prospect of getting out on
the west looked bleak. The bridges were all out and the rebels were blocking
access to my data!
My only hope was to hop a flight on one of the US Navy relief helicopters the
next morning. We had dinner, went to bed and I slept through another magnitude
Day Five: January 7, 2005
I was up early, 5 a.m. I was up and pacing around the camp trying to figure
out the best way to save the mission and get good data. Without at least one
more data point on the west coast, the ‘scientific’ part of this trip was rather
weak. Two points on the east coast, a bunch of flow depths and pictures in Banda
Aceh plus a speculative point at Lhoknga, it just wasn’t enough.
Debris on balcony.
Luck was on my side this day. We made it to the airport at about 7:30 a.m.
There were already flights going in and out taking food and water to cut-off villages.
I checked in with a U.S. military guy and he directed me to the person in charge
of getting journalists on the helicopter flights.
At first the list seemed hopelessly long, I was way down at the bottom, but since
I had Gunawan with me and he spoke Indonesian, we were able to get on an earlier
flight. The translators who normally fly with the U.S. Navy guys to ask the villagers
what they needed, did not show up today. We were up and flying by 8:15, shooting
south along the coast and over the devastated areas of Banda Aceh. From the air,
the effects are much clearer and you are able to really see the scale of the disaster
that you cannot appreciate from ground level. All along the west coast a neat
trim line was clearly evident. It was obvious how high the wave had come since
you could see the rocks and dirt exposed where there had been previously a dense
coastal jungle. I estimate the runup all along this coast to be 10 to 15 meters.
We landed about a half hour after takeoff and I scrambled out of the chopper,
grabbed some GPS points and measured flow traces. I got three quick measurements
and was back in the chopper in about 10 minutes. We stopped once more at a place
further inland and I helped carry some supplies and snapped a few pictures on
the ground. We were back up and flying over the jungles of Sumatra and back to
the airbase by 10:30 am.
The second stroke of luck happened as I was across the street from base camp
at the health center trying to photograph a large map of Banda Aceh. I was hoping
to somehow piece together the photos in the computer and use it as a base map
for my data. It was the best I could think of since maps off Banda Aceh seemed
really, really hard to come by. (No one at the government relief center had any
idea where to get one, as it turns out I later found a whole stack of detailed
1:5000 scale Banda Aceh maps at the airport souvenir shop in Medan!)
As I was shooting the pictures in bad light, a young doctor guy from Singapore
came over and told me he had the same map but in fold-up size! I was like “yeah!”
He gave it to me since his group was leaving the next day. So that was score
number two. I could now make a more accurate base map and locate my GPS sites
on the map.
The rest of the day was spent shooting GPS points and flow marks on the eastern
side of Banda Aceh.
Day Six: January 8, 2005
We had arranged for a flight out of Medan. We packed up quickly and split up
in two groups. I went to survey and measure some final locations to the west
of Banda Aceh. The TV crew went to finish a story at the refugee camp. We were
to meet at the airport at 10:30 am for a 12:30 flight. On the way to the airport
I passed by a group of elephants that were being used to help clear debris. The
National Geographic crew has filmed them earlier in the trip pulling a car out of the mud.
The airport was quite hectic. But somehow we all made it through check-in and
into the smoke-filled, hermetically sealed, barely air-conditioned, human terrarium
of a waiting lounge at the Medan airport. The departure time came and went and
we waited another two hours before we were up and flying. Despite being incredibly
late, the two Jeffs made their connecting flight to Singapore, and presumably
their flight to L.A. from Singapore the next morning. Jeff Swimmer was especially
stressed to get home because his wife had given birth to twins while we were in
Dan and I waited around Medan and caught a flight to Jakarta. We had a meeting
with a government ministry where I was supposed to give a presentation on my findings
and Dan was supposed to thank them on behalf of National Geographic.
The flight to Jakarta was delayed by about three hours. Again the waiting lounge
was a perfectly sealed glass box filled with hot air and cigarette smoke. I laughed
out loud at the tiny ‘smoking area’ designated at the top of some stairs. The
whole place was a cloud. I stumbled around sweaty and delerious, found the stack
of Banda Aceh maps and the one snack bar cooler that had cold Bintang. It was
the first beer I’d seen in a week.
The flight finally left and we arrived in Jakarta at midnight. We were picked
up and whisked to a hotel, I got a hot shower, and could finally clean up a bit,
but I couldn’t get the people in the refugee camps out of my mind. They had lost
everything and it would be a long time before they got a hot shower. How lucky
Day 7: January 9, 2005
Mosque, western Banda Aceh.
Today I just worked on my data, got the photos developed and scanned onto a CD.
Later I went to the mall to buy nice clothes for my meeting with the government
minister. I only brought work clothes and I had given most of what I had away
to the relief center in Banda Aceh.
Day 8: January 10, 2005
I finished preparing my presentation and fixed my ticket for the return trip.
We had the meeting with officials from the Ministry of Political, Law and Security
Affairs. There were 20 or 30 attendees, all around a large conference table in
matching government uniforms. They listened to my talk and asked a lot of questions.
We finished and I went back to the hotel to do more work.
Day 9: January 11, 2005
Flew back to L.A. from Jakarta via Singapore. It was almost a direct connection
so there was no down time. The flights were on time and uneventful.