After the Tsunami

Ten years later, Mission Aviation Fellowship Reflects on the Crisis in Aceh

Sumatra after the 2004 Tsunami
Sumatra after the 2004 Tsunami
Sumatra after the 2004 Tsunami
Sumatra after the 2004 Tsunami

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — On December 26, 2004, the ground shook and the ocean rose, engulfing the western coast of the Aceh region of Indonesia. An estimated 170,000 people died, 550,000 were displaced, and communities were forever changed.

Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) was one of the first responders. MAF has worked in Indonesia since the 1950s and was able to mobilize airplanes from Bangladesh, Australia, and other parts of Indonesia to assist in the relief efforts. Within days, MAF was conducting survey flights and delivering aid to survivors, using roads as landing strips to reach the isolated.

“As you flew up the coast, things looked fine until you reached Meulaboh. Then, it was just destruction. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said David Wunsch, special projects director for MAF.

Roads were destroyed or covered with debris, making ground travel nearly impossible. MAF used its airplanes to deliver food, water, medicine, and other necessities to locations that others were unable to reach. MAF’s Tim Chase arrived in Aceh 10 days after the tsunami and recalls those initial efforts.

“At that time we had two locations on the coast where we were landing on roads,” said Chase. “Obor Berkat (Operation Blessing Indonesia) was working very closely with us to provide food in boxes that we could give to each family. We could load 150 boxes or so in a Cessna 206.” People would crowd around the airplane as it landed, desperately seeking help.

As other relief organizations began to arrive, MAF established a communication center or “internet café” in Meulaboh, a community on the west coast of Aceh where the United Nations set up a base camp. Another communication center was established in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital that was devastated by the tsunami.

“There was a huge need for communications, as most of that infrastructure was destroyed in the tsunami,” said Mark Blomberg, who worked at the Meulaboh communication center. “The U.N. had set up tents on a soccer field, so that was a logical place for the internet café. We had a tent with tables, computers, and a wireless network that was available for the U.N. or anyone who wanted to use it. We also had several VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phones that the aid workers could use to call back to their offices.

“People would come to the café early in the morning to shoot off a few emails or make a few phone calls, then they would go out and spend the day in the field. After dinner they would return and spend the evening writing up reports and assessments, or making phone calls with our phones. At that point our internet café was the only communication link,” said Blomberg.

Blomberg met his wife, Heidi, in Meulaboh, where she was working with Food for the Hungry, one of many relief agencies that partnered with MAF.

“We always flew with MAF from Medan to Meulaboh,” said Heidi Blomberg. “That was our only way of getting in and out. They transported all our expat and local staff. We also did a lot of surveying up the coast, and that was done with the MAF float plane. MAF also worked with Food for the Hungry to set up internet for us in our office.”

The rebuilding work in Aceh continued for years. Chase, who remained in Aceh until 2007, said that the people were dependent upon food aid for at least a year, until their gardens could become reestablished. Hundreds of development groups were involved in efforts as diverse as clearing debris, building fish farms, planting rice, constructing homes and schools, digging wells, building boats, and helping small businesses get back on their feet. And MAF provided transportation, communications, and logistic help to make it happen.

“The tsunami response was really the beginning of MAF’s disaster response department,” said Dave Wunsch. “We have always helped in crises, but after the tsunami it became obvious that MAF had an important role to play in coordinating logistics and transportation and really enabling other relief providers.”

MAF now has a full-time disaster response department that is on standby to assist in the wake of natural disasters and other such emergencies. This team played critical roles following Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

What began as a disaster response effort turned into a long-term commitment for Mission Aviation Fellowship in Aceh. Ten years later, MAF is one of the only aid groups still working there. From a base in Banda Aceh, MAF provides medical evacuation flights and safe, reliable air transportation. MAF also partners with a local aviation maintenance vocational school, providing practical laboratory training for high-school age students. In 2014, some 90 students passed through the MAF hangar.

To the casual observer, Aceh seems to have recovered from the tragedy wrought by the tsunami. But such loss is not quickly forgotten.

“Things will never be the same,” said Chase. “Everything looks fine now. The homes are built and the kids are in the schools, but the human aspect of it is pretty raw. It will be a generation or two before things truly get back to normal.”

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