Tsunami Eyewitness Account by Nat Geo Photographer

Chris Rainier in Banda Aceh, Indonesia,
and David Braun in Washington, D.C.,
for National Geographic News
January 11, 2005

Two weeks after the Southeast Asian tsunami swamped the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, thousands of bodies still cover the area. Looters are picking through the debris, and survivors, still in shock, wait for medical help, according to National Geographic photographer Chris Rainier. (See Rainier's tsunami pictures.)

Rainier phoned in his first-person account from Banda Aceh yesterday.

"The best way to describe this—because we grew up with the images and we all know what it looked like—is that Banda Aceh looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb," Rainier said in a phone call yesterday from the ruined provincial capital on the island Sumatra.

Banda Aceh is at ground zero of the tsunami disaster. On December 26, 2004, the city was only 155 miles (250 kilometers) from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake epicenter.

Within minutes of the quake, millions of unsuspecting people were engulfed by a wall of seawater reported to have been as high as 60 feet (18 meters). The tsunami swept everything before it for up to five miles (eight kilometers) inland. When the ocean receded entire communities had disappeared and tens of thousand people were dead.

Rainier, a professional photographer, is in Banda Aceh with his wife, Chanda Butler. They are working as volunteers with the International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian nonprofit organization with headquarters in Santa Monica, California. The IMC has sent some two dozen volunteer doctors and other health professionals to Banda Aceh.

Rainer and Butler are assisting the medical efforts as needed. They are staying in a building rented by the IMC outside the flooded part of the city, sharing the premises with some 30 refugees. Rainier makes sorties from time to time to make photographs of the disaster zone and talk to the survivors.

Transcription of Rainier's Report, Filed by Telephone Yesterday

The best way to describe this—because we grew up with the images and we all know what it looked like—is that Banda Aceh looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. It's totally destroyed. The buildings have been flattened for miles and entire communities—probably something like a hundred thousand people—have been swept out to sea.

It's day 15 [January 10, 2005] since the disaster, and still there are vast areas where exposed bodies can be seen lying around, decaying. Just cleaning up, picking up the bodies, remains the biggest challenge.

The medical situation is just as daunting. Hundreds of thousands of survivors are refugees, squatting in makeshift camps wherever you go. A lot of relief agencies are trying to get in here to set things up. But the logistics remain a nightmare.

Everyone is very impressed with the U.S. military relief effort and the UN's coordination of some 200 different [charity organizations] setting up here. The urgent challenge is to make sure that another hundred thousand people don't die from disease.

Continued on Next Page >>


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