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UNICEF
Saturday
Jul 19
2014
July 19, 2014

10 Years Later: Reflecting on Our Tsunami Recovery Efforts

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December 26, 2004, is a day I will never forget. I was living in New York, working at UNICEF headquarters. On the early hours of that Sunday I was called into the office to get to work on earthquake and tsunami relief. Little did we know in those first hours how profound the disaster was. We watched in horror the images of the tsunami striking Banda Aceh. I could not have imagined that just a few weeks later I would be working for President Clinton in his capacity of United Nations Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.
 
On the early hours of that Sunday I was called into the office to get to work on earthquake and tsunami relief. Little did we know in those first hours how profound the disaster was. We watched in horror the images of the tsunami striking Banda Aceh.
 
Visiting Banda Aceh with President Clinton weeks after the tsunami struck was both traumatic and rewarding. The destruction was so complete; so breathtaking in many ways. Never before had I been to a place that had been literally flattened by a natural disaster. We went to camps for the internally displaced, visited the only mosque that was left standing, saw the local school that had only six children in attendance, and listened to survivors tell their stories. One mother whose words still haunt me said: “We waited for days for our children to wash up on the beach.” Another man had lost nine of his ten children. President Clinton listened, story after story, he offered comfort and determination that the international response would offer the affected communities a better life than the one they had prior to the tsunami. 
 
President Clinton listened, story after story, he offered comfort and determination that the international response would offer the affected communities a better life than the one they had prior to the tsunami. 
 
From the beginning, the empathy and human touch that President Clinton extended was unparalleled. He sat in the camps, listened, held people’s hands, asked about their children, their livelihoods, their hopes for the recovery effort. It was clear how much his visits meant to affected communities, and how much it meant to us that he could offer such humble, yet meaningful, support.
 
Immediately, President Clinton set out to bring the international community together to “build back better.” He had a vision that was truly remarkable – one that is still being used today when natural disasters strike.
 
Immediately, President Clinton set out to bring the international community together to “build back better.” He had a vision that was truly remarkable – one that is still being used today when natural disasters strike. President Clinton coordinated the largest international response to a natural disaster in modern history; ensuring at every step of the way that local and national leaders were at the forefront of the recovery effort. His goal was to make the tsunami recovery effort a laboratory for what was the best in development. This meant he supported the creation of a tsunami early warning system; advocated for minorities to be included in the response (women in Aceh were awarded land titles for the first time ever);  promoted the use of sustainable and legal timber in the recovery effort;  encouraged the creation of conditions for entrepreneurs to flourish (Starbucks’ “Sumatra Coffee” comes from Aceh;)  and envisioned a whole new system for the expenditure of aid which demanded accountability and transparency from governments as well as donors.
 
I’m confident that he will see his vision fulfilled thanks to the resilience of the Acehnese and in no small part due to his leadership, from which I continue to learn.  
 
I haven’t been to Banda Aceh in the nine years since my visit with President Clinton, but the images of what we saw remain vivid. How heartening I found it, therefore, when I recently saw pictures of Aceh today. People are back to work, marketplaces are filled, communities are thriving. President Clinton will witness this transformation during his visit to Banda Aceh this week on his Foundation trip across the Asia-Pacific region. I’m confident that he will see his vision fulfilled thanks to the resilience of the Acehnese and in no small part due to his leadership, from which I continue to learn.