tampabay.com

Major rebuilding proceeds slowly in wake of tsunami

Associated Press
Published June 26, 2005


BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Along the ruined highway of Indonesia's northern Sumatra coast, the horizon is a flattened wasteland dotted with reminders of lives lost, wooden signs scrawled with the words "kuburan masal" - mass grave.

Once, this two-lane road was the major artery linking fishing villages and farming communities to the bustling provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

Then, the tsunami washed much of it away.

Where once the drive from Banda Aceh to Meulaboh was an easy five-hour ride on smooth asphalt, today it's a bone-jarring, 12-hour slog on dirt and gravel. Every few yards the road is pockmarked with holes; all along the way, the devastation is inescapable.

But there are signs of rebirth. Temporary houses and schools are starting to sprout, and now the Americans are poised to mend the coastal road - and with it, the wounded communities that once thrived along its path.

"This is a road writ large. It enables communities to become communities again, livelihoods to flourish, businesses to grow," said Bill McKinney, representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Aceh, which is funding the five-year, $245-million road project.

It is this way across the wide swath ravaged by the mammoth quake and tsunami six months ago - 11 countries where an estimated 180,000 died and 50,000 more are missing. The focus has shifted from emergency relief to longer-term recovery; donors and aid agencies are seeking to rebuild basic infrastructure and renew broken lives.

But the challenges are daunting, and complaints abound that promised funding has been slow to come, and reconstruction is not moving as quickly as hoped.

In Sri Lanka, the government says it has signed agreements with donor agencies to build 27,000 houses and has pledges for 90,000 houses in total. But some tsunami survivors, frustrated by government inaction, held demonstrations two weeks ago. Hundreds carrying black flags blocked traffic and turned violent when police tried to disperse the crowd demanding promised compensation for destroyed homes.

In southern India, construction has begun on permanent housing in the devastated district of Nagapattinam, and officials there estimate some 17,000 new homes are needed while 4,000 others can be repaired. J. Radhakrishnan, the top local administrator, said he hopes the first of the homes will be ready in three months, while all housing is expected to be completed within a year.

On Thailand's resort island of Phuket, hotels and stores have reopened and the Starbucks is selling cappuccinos again. But around Khao Lak in neighboring Phang Nga province, recovery has been much slower, with construction just starting along the main strip that was once lined with dive shops and hotels.

Nowhere is the task more pressing than in Indonesia's Aceh province, near the epicenter of the Dec. 26 tsunami, where more than 131,000 people were killed.

The tsunami unleashed 30-foot walls of water that wiped hundreds of miles of coastline and entire villages off the map. More than a half-million people were left homeless.

Half of them still live in basic tents while about 150,000 have moved into government-built barracks. The rest have moved into tight quarters shared with friends and relatives.

Small steps have been taken on the road to recovery. Markets that were clogged with mud are bustling again with vendors selling vegetables and seafood. Streets once swollen with bodies are jammed with cars and motorbikes. Mountains of debris have been carted off and spots of green are sprouting from blackened earth.

But reconstruction has been slow, with only a few wood-framed houses going up around Banda Aceh and its surrounding villages. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment are scarce.

Frustrated survivors had hoped for more, their expectations heightened by armies of foreign aid workers and millions of dollars in pledges that initially came their way.

Just off the coastal highway, fisherman M. Yayah Abu Bakar, 43, and his family of five live in cramped barracks a few miles from the remains of their home. Everything they have - pots, an old mattress, piles of clothes, a kid's bicycle - is borrowed or donated.

"Why are we still here?" he lamented. "They promised we would have our own house soon. The government is getting a lot of money, but the reconstruction has been too slow. We cannot live like this."

Nearly $7-billion in reconstruction aid was promised by fellow nations, but little has been disbursed. Donors are reluctant to disburse without a clear plan and guarantees of transparency.

The United Nations and humanitarian groups have defended the pace, saying the scope and complexity of the challenge requires a thoughtful and well-planned response.

"It's not simply going back and rebuilding what was there before . . . but rebuilding better," said Michele Lipner, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Aceh.

"You're not talking about rebuilding a home or rebuilding infrastructure. You're talking about ensuring when you rebuild as a collective, it's in areas that are viable and sustainable. . . . That takes time."

Bottlenecks in Indonesia have eased with the creation of an agency to oversee reconstruction. Headed by former Energy Minister Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency has approved nearly $1.8-billion in projects in its six weeks of operation.

Among them: a $600-million agreement with the International Red Cross to build 22,500 houses, 70 schools and 180 clinics over four years; the $245-million coastal highway project; and a $30-million Intel project to provide wireless Internet access to Banda Aceh. An additional $585-million in projects by the United Nations and nongovernmental groups was approved in mid June.

Mangkusubroto promises that in the next few weeks and months, reconstruction will be clearly visible on the streets of Aceh.

Some construction is already under way. The first of 200 temporary schools put up by UNICEF is opening this week, while the rest will be completed over the next month. The International Organization for Migration, which has committed to building 11,000 houses, will have a few dozen steel-reinforced concrete homes ready for families by month's end.

But the soft-spoken Mangkusubroto is aware that any reports of corruption could halt the flow of new money. The agency has sent a message of "zero tolerance" for corruption, and hired international auditors and accountants. "We're not very proud of our past when it comes to corruption . . . but we have to fight this. Otherwise, trust will diminish and the pledges cannot be realized," he said.