Expediting Homes for Tsunami Victims
Indonesia, Relief Groups Widen Plans as Thousands Remain in Temporary Shelters

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

MEUDANGGHON, Indonesia -- In a field along Sumatra's west coast, a group of villagers gathered under a blue tarp, peering at a laptop computer. The screen displayed a design of a simple brick house.

"Everyone okay with this?" asked Dave Hodgkin, a relief aid consultant. "Any changes? If you want a bigger window, tell us."

"Don't change anything," a woman in a black head scarf quickly responded. "It'll slow things down."

Hodgkin works with Fauna & Flora International, a British group that is preparing to build homes in this isolated village of 60 households in Aceh province, the area hit hardest by the tsunami of more than a year ago. Similar scenes have been taking place across Aceh over the past several months as aid workers help survivors plan entire communities.

Stung by intense criticism of a slow rebuilding effort after the Dec. 26, 2004, undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami, the Indonesian government and relief agencies are moving to pick up the pace. After building about 16,000 houses in 2005, Indonesia is undertaking what officials call the world's largest reconstruction effort ever after a natural disaster. The goal is to build 80,000 homes by the end of this year and a total of 120,000 by mid-2007.

Interviews with officials and survivors indicate that accelerating the rebuilding process will not be easy. Not all of the houses built in 2005 have been occupied, according to the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias, known by its Indonesian initials BRR. Nias is an island off the Sumatran coast and was heavily damaged by an earthquake last March.

More than 60,000 people still live in tents. Another 50,000 are in barracks or other forms of temporary shelter. Several hundred thousand are living with friends and family, but many will need homes of their own.

"Until the last person moves out of the barracks into their own house, that last person will say that we are slow," according to Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, director of the government relief agency.

But beginning this year, he said, there will be 5,000 housing starts a month. Officials said the increased pace will bring logistical challenges. Building 120,000 houses will require 13.7 million cubic meters of concrete, gravel and wood -- or 1.7 million truckloads of material, officials said. It will be trucked, shipped and in some cases flown by helicopter to remote areas, said Sudirman Said, BRR spokesman.

Moving the material will be hampered by the lack of transportation facilities. The tsunami and earthquake wrecked most of Aceh's ports, highways and bridges. Officials expect a port restoration at Meulaboh to be completed by February, but others will take longer.

One recent morning, on the eastern outskirts of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, a single cargo ship loaded with sugar was docked at Malahayati port's only jetty. Two other ships, one carrying cement, idled in the harbor. The port can dock only one ship at a time.

"This is the main supply line for all the villages along the coast" of northern Aceh and part of its western coast, said Jan Roos, project manager for a construction firm hired by the Dutch government to enlarge the port. The Dutch are spending $8.2 million to dredge the harbor, build a second jetty and make other improvements. By October, Roos said, the port should be able to handle up to three ships.

Another port has been reopened for passenger ferries on the western side of the capital. But cargo ships still cannot land at the Ulee Lheue port, also to the west. Instead, the U.N. World Food Program and other relief agencies are using special landing craft that can pull up to shore, lower a ramp and unload.

Still, a landing craft must travel up to 18 hours from Ulee Lheue to Calang down the Sumatran west coast, a trip that used to take only 3 1/2 hours on the West Coast Highway before the tsunami battered it and dumped large chunks into the sea.

The United States is spending $245 million to repair the highway, the largest infrastructure project in Aceh and the most complex. Land has shifted in many parts of the island, and in some areas 500 yards of beach are submerged or washed away. "The road now in many places is next to the ocean and has to be relocated," said William Frej, the Indonesia director of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The road will be rebuilt up to five miles inland, he said. USAID officials hope it will be finished by 2008.

The only hitch is that some villagers, eager to be settled, are rebuilding close to the shore, near their old fishing grounds. But Frej said he thought many would ultimately move.

"The road is unquestionably the economic backbone of Aceh," he said. "I would suspect that many of the villages, when the road is completed, will be relocated much closer to the road."

Zainal Abidin, 55, who lost his wife and three of their six children in the tsunami, lives about 150 yards from the sea in Leupung on the west coast. He does not want to move. He went back to the site of his old village and has lived in a tent for almost a year.

Now, he said, "all I want is to have a house in my old place."

But a relief agency that has promised houses for the village is clearing fields near a hill inland. The leader of the village says only about half the people are willing to move.

Another challenge is obtaining land titles for an estimated 300,000 people affected by the tsunami. The BRR, with the help of large donors led by the World Bank, will help people secure their property rights and establish a land database. Holding a land deed will also help those who need loan collateral to start a business, said Eddy Purwanto, a BRR official.

"The idea is to reconstruct ownership," he said, "but also to get them out of the cycle of poverty."

Officials said that one of the most difficult challenges is managing expectations. After the tsunami, with record donations pouring in and 500,000 people in need of shelter, hopes were raised that houses would be built quickly.

"Total destruction is total destruction and it takes time to rebuild -- and I'm not even referring to Katrina," said Scott Campbell, Aceh director for Catholic Relief Services. "I'm referring to Hurricanes Ivan and Charlie and others over a year old where people are still not in permanent houses. And this is coming from a country where there's loads of resources and infrastructure."

In recognition that many people here are going to have to wait until 2007 for permanent houses, international Red Cross groups, the United Nations and the BRR are building 20,000 transitional homes of galvanized steel. Officials hope to move most people out of tents by April.

In what is left of the village of Meudangghon, a mile from the sea, 30 families live in tents on a field once lush with mango, durian and orange trees. Thirty other families are in barracks in the nearest town, 45 minutes away by motorbike and ferry.

The villagers plan to rebuild on higher ground about 1 1/2 miles inland, near a mountain. The land they will build on belongs to several villagers, who have agreed to sell the land to their fellow villagers, with the local government putting up the money, said Helen Barnes, the project manager of Fauna & Flora in Aceh.

Mohammad Nasir, the village head, said the planning process has taken a long time. But he said he believes it will be worth it.

"I have faith," he said. "I am optimistic this will work."

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.

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