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Five million people five years on: boxing day tsunami

News and Press Release
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On 26 December 2004, Boxing Day, a massive earthquake struck an area off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The earthquake triggered tsunami waves that pummelled coastal areas at speeds of more than 500 kilometres per hour.

Waves reached northern Sumatra in minutes, the coast of Thailand within an hour, India and Sri Lanka in two hours and the north coast of Somalia after eight hours. The 20 metre high waves smashed into the western coast of Aceh Province in Indonesia destroying everything three kilometres inland.

Over 230,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries in what is called the biggest single natural disaster in recent history.

Five years on, with generous assistance from people worldwide, the lives of almost five million people have been significantly improved by Red Cross action.

Over the past five years New Zealand Red Cross alone has committed $20 million to tsunami relief and recovery operations (donations from the public and the New Zealand Government) and over 40 New Zealand Red Cross aid workers have deployed in tsunami affected areas such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India.

During the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, New Zealand Red Cross, working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, set up a call centre, staffed by volunteers, to assist concerned Kiwis reconnect with their friends and family missing in the disaster zone. The call centre took over 26,000 calls over 21 days.

The Red Cross' tsunami recovery operation, one of the largest coordinated projects every implemented, has met peoples' emergency needs, helped to rebuild communities and supported their future development.

With a strong focus on disaster reduction, tsunami affected communities have been empowered through new awareness, skills and infrastructure that means they are stronger, safer and better prepared to face future hazards as well as offering them the best chance for a long term, sustainable recovery.

New Zealand Red Cross disaster assessment specialist Douglas Clark, from Dunedin, flew to Sri Lanka on 27 December 2004 as part of a Red Cross Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT) sent in to establish the most effective way to organise the disaster response effort.

Initially, Douglas was completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand.

"It quickly dawned on us all that we were involved in something really big. I felt anxious and kept asking myself "had my training prepared me for this?" Then I realised these thoughts were completely irrelevant as no one could possibly prepare for the scale of tragedy we faced on the ground in Sri Lanka. What was relevant was the major task before us. I decided to leave behind my doubts and focus on a 'lets get on with it' attitude."

Five years on and progress remains ongoing, rebuilding lives and livelihoods.

"I was sceptical about what could be achieved over the long term but this has been a salutary lesson for me in the Power of Humanity. Where there is the collective will, especially among different cultures and organisations combined with the enormous generosity of the donating public, virtually anything can be achieved. Whilst things for the survivors will never be the same, it has however given them an opportunity to move forward and to rebuild their lives," Douglas says.