BANDA ACEH, Indonesia: Taking a stroll through Banda Aceh’s iconic Blang Padang Park, it’s hard to imagine that 15 years ago, this place was scattered with dead bodies and debris after a powerful tsunami killed thousands of people.
Today, joggers in the shady park are accompanied by the sounds of singing birds in the morning, while at night the place glows from food stalls offering local dishes such as Acehnese noodle and steamed fish dumpling.
This is in sharp contrast to Dec 26, 2004 when a massive 9.1 magnitude quake struck undersea 160km off Sumatra’s coast, unleashing a 30m wall of water and flattening buildings.
It also killed 170,000 people in Aceh and thousands of others in more than 10 other Indian Ocean countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and even Somalia in Africa.
Today, a monument named "Aceh Thanks the World" stands in the park, expressing gratitude to the 53 countries that helped Aceh.
Across the park, a museum was inaugurated in 2009 to create awareness about disaster preparedness.
While Aceh people interviewed by CNA appeared to have some knowledge about tsunamis and earthquakes, it is far from certain whether they are sufficiently prepared in the event of another major disaster.
“The infrastructure (in Aceh) is now better, but disaster preparedness is still just a discourse,” said Mr Teuku Dadek, who is the provincial government secretary assistant in charge of economy and development.
On a December afternoon, a group of female junior high school students enthusiastically studied placards in the Tsunami Museum.
As 13-year olds, they were not yet born when Aceh was hit by the deadly tsunami, which contained an energy level equivalent to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Still, the young visitors seemed quite informed about that fateful day and what they need to do if it ever happens again.
“A tsunami is scary. Even imagining it frightens me,” 13-year-old Moufidia told CNA.
Her friend Zahra added that they have been taught about the tsunami since the fifth grade and what to do if one occurs.
“They told us if a tsunami happens, we have to immediately run to higher ground. And then ask for help. Tell people your name, your parent’s name and then they will help you,” the eighth-grader said.
When CNA asked the students where they should flee in case of a tsunami or an earthquake, they mentioned several places including the Blang Padang Park.
MANY HAD NEVER HEARD OF A TSUNAMI
Situated on the so-called Ring of Fire where tectonic plates collide causing frequent earthquakes, Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.
Nevertheless, when the tsunami struck 15 years ago, most Indonesians had never heard of it.
Survivors interviewed by CNA regretted their lack of knowledge back then. They said they could have evacuated quicker and more lives could have been saved.
Recounting their experiences, they said they were aware that Aceh was prone to earthquakes.
Many ran out of their homes when the earthquake rocked their province on that Sunday morning just before 8am. But a few minutes later, most went back into their houses assuming that it would be safe enough.
They next heard a loud bang.
“My wife asked me ‘what is that sound?’ I wasn’t sure but I told her it was just the Free Aceh Movement fighting with the army again," recounted Aceh resident Wen Arman, 43.
"I then continued fixing the flower pots which fell because of the quake,” said Mr Arman who lost his wife and both his children in the tragedy.
Minutes later, people started panicking when they realised the water was rising. They started running but it was too late for many of them, he added.
Three years ago, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake again struck Aceh at dawn on Dec 7.
The shock didn’t produce a tsunami but it left more than 100 people dead. More than 1,000 people were also injured in Pidie and Pidie Jaya regencies.
Even though the earthquake was not as severe compared to 2004, many structures such as houses, mosques, and roads were destroyed.
RECORDED IN HISTORY, FORGOTTEN IN MODERN TIMES
There have been historical records of tsunami in the area. In 1907, for instance, tsunami is said to have struck Simeulue island, just 150km off the west coast of Aceh mainland.
When the tsunami struck in 2004, Simeulue was also the closest inhabited island near the epicentre.
But only seven people out of its 78,000 population died. This was largely attributed to the fact that they evacuated quickly to the hills once they felt the earthquake.
The people of Simeulue said they were aware a catastrophe would happen. This is because their local wisdom named Smong - a series of lyrics on what to do when a tsunami takes place - had been passed down for generations.
Smong taught them that when a big earthquake happens and they see low tide, they should immediately run to higher ground because it means a monstrous wave will suddenly emerge that could submerge their entire land.
It is believed Smong was created after the 1907 tsunami and locals decided to tell the story to their children.
In northeast Aceh, a term meaning a huge wave occurring unexpectedly has been known for centuries as Ie Buena.
The term is used several times in an ancient Aceh manuscript about earthquakes suggesting that a tsunami occurred during the nineteenth century.
But the tradition to tell the story of the Ie Buena may have been neglected when an uptick of insurgencies gripped the province in 1976.
The formal educational curriculum also didn’t teach children about tsunami.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE SINCE 2004?
Some headway has been made in Aceh in terms of disaster preparedness.
The authorities have built evacuation routes, especially in coastal areas. They have also set up local tsunami early warning systems and installed sensors in the province.
“We only had two sensors in Aceh prior to the tsunami, but after that we learned and we have increased it to 13,” said head of the Meterological, Climatological, and Geophysical Agency Dwikorita Karnawati.
There are currently 170 sensors throughout Indonesia.
The government has also held regular drills, and this has involved all levels of the schools including the kindergartens.
However, Mr Dadek of the provincial government noted that the drills are only held if the government announces them.
There are barely any drills initiated by individuals, he said, adding that given the possibility of frequent disasters, more should have been done.
There have also been reports that the tsunami sensors, including the tsunami buoys, have been stolen or are not functioning due to poor maintenance.
NEW DISASTER PREPAREDNESS PROGRAMME
While the Acehnese are now more aware of the dangers of a tsunami, the local government said people are not ready to deal with another disaster.
“We are all actually not ready for a disaster,” Aceh Besar regent Marwadi Ali said.
He added: “We should learn from a disaster, including from a tsunami”.
Thus, in mid-December, the national disaster agency launched a programme dubbed KATANA, an abbreviation for the Indonesian words of Disaster Resilient Families.
It aims to equip families with disaster preparedness knowledge through training.
The disaster agency along with various government bodies will help families with risk disaster awareness and strengthen their disaster knowledge. It has also pledged to empower people to save themselves, their families, neighbours and others.
“If only the people of Aceh knew and understood the risks (of an earthquake and tsunami) and how to respond, the number of victims would not be that big,” the head of the national disaster agency Mr Doni Monardo said referring to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.
Among the knowledge to be imparted include an understanding of the construction of people's homes and evacuation routes.
Mr Monardo hoped that with the scheme, survival rate during disasters will be 98 per cent.
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS LACKING AT NATIONAL LEVEL
Overall, it would seem that a lot needs to be done about disaster preparedness nationally.
Last year, at least 4814 people died from disasters.
When Banten and Lampung provinces were struck by a tsunami on Dec 22, 2018, videos of panicked people running on inundated streets went viral.
Then, officials dismissed claims that a tsunami had happened. The Meteorological, Climatological, and Geophysical Agency (BMKG) also said on its Twitter handle that night it did not record an earthquake that caused a tsunami.
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In the now-deleted Tweet, the agency claimed that what occurred was a tidal wave.
Only the following morning did they issue a statement confirming a tsunami did occur on Sunda Strait as a result of the eruption and partial collapse of the Anak Krakatau volcano.
At that time, the national disaster agency conceded that it did not have an early warning system for tsunamis caused by underwater landslides or volcanic eruptions in the sea. Its early warning system only allowed for the monitoring of tsunamis caused by earthquakes.
Given all these, the head of the national disaster agency Mr Monardo hopes that the KATANA programme can reach every family in Indonesia in the next five years.
“Earthquakes and tsunamis are recurrent events. We have to take action,” he said.