Lessons from Tragedy and Recovery

Elizabeth Frankenberg talks about the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004
September 26, 2014

December 26 marks the tenth anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters of all time—the Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province, killing some 160,000 people. Since 2005, Elizabeth Frankenberg, a professor of public policy, has led an Indonesia-based fieldwork project that has followed a group of 32,000 people (first interviewed, pre-tsunami, in 2004). Frankenberg leads the project in collaboration with economics professor Duncan Thomas, along with longtime collaborators in Indonesia and the U.S.; Frankenberg and Thomas also are working with several Duke students and postdocs.

What made the tsunami so wrenching in its impact?

You had this beautiful ocean that had long been the foundation for successful livelihoods rise up and swallow people. It was so unexpected, it was so sudden; we’re not often confronted with a disaster that in the space of an hour, wipes out as much as 80 percent of the population in the worst-hit communities. In the capital city, Banda Aceh, a third of the people lost their lives.

Is it clear what separated those who survived from those who perished?

One factor is that the geography of Aceh is such that in very small areas, altitude varies considerably. Areas that were badly damaged were adjacent to areas that were protected because of the change in elevation. People who were out on the ocean were more protected because it was a gentle swell out there; when the tsunami began to reach shallower water and hit the shore, the waves became devastating.

What kind of data were you seeking in your surveys?

Understanding how people coped in the aftermath of the disaster and then rebuilt their lives has been a strong component. That includes documenting changes over time in mental health, housing, and working lives. We wanted to design our project so that we understood not just what was happening in the most heavily damaged areas, but also in the less-affected areas.

What are some of your findings?

The effects and responses to the tsunami were widespread; they weren’t limited to the most heavily damaged areas. People—not just those most affected by the disaster—responded to the inflow of assistance by moving to areas to take advantage of new work opportunities. The extent of resilience and recovery is nothing short of breathtaking, as families and communities came together to help each other and rebuild their lives. People returned to the worst-hit areas. They rebuilt their homes, the roads, the mosques; they started new businesses; they started new families. As you’d expect, we see elevations in posttraumatic stress responses immediately after the tsunami, and not just for those who were exposed to the worst things or who were in the most heavily damaged areas. But, within a year or two, these levels decline dramatically for most people, and we see improvements in physical health.

So overall, you found a surprisingly strong recovery?

The Indonesian government and various aid agencies built around 120,000 houses in the aftermath of the tsunami—a huge number of houses. The government collaborated very well with aid agencies—there were lots of them—and that is part of the success story. The major NGOs certainly played a role, but so did religious communities all over Indonesia. One thing to keep in mind is that Indonesia is a very big country. Although the effects in this particular province were devastating, Indonesia has thirty-three other provinces, so there were resources available to respond.

Natural disasters will happen again. Is there a lesson to be drawn from this one?

One lesson is that recovery takes a long time. If you look at something like home ownership, it went way down right after the tsunami in the most badly affected areas, and then it slowly began to rise. But it was five years until it was back to pre-tsunami levels. Both family and community networks are quite important. As an example, over time, a lot of people who lost their parents return to where they had lived before, and older siblings who formerly lived apart take in younger siblings. So a sense of family is being restored.