Remembering devastation of 2004 tsunami

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It is hard to imagine that one decade ago I had been dispatched to the Indonesia to cover Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services’ efforts after the December 26 tsunami that would eventually kill more than 200,000 people. The devastation remains unconscionable today, after being dropped into Aceh province to cover the victims and survivors. Only one word could truly describe my reaction to seeing the damage from the event: “Helpless.”

The 2004 earthquake deep beneath the Indian Ocean is believed to have lasted three to four minutes, the epicenter near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The resulting displacement of water created a tsunami that flowed thousands of miles and washed over South Asia and East Africa. It is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people. The United State Geological Survey estimates about 1.7 million people in 14 countries were affected, and the December 26 earthquake, at 9.1 magnitude, the third largest since the start of the 20th Century. Baltimore Sun staff photographer Karl Merton Ferron went to Indonesia to cover the work of Catholic Relief Services and the lives of the survivors.

The bodies left in piles along muddy streets did not bother me as much as the ghosts of the people no longer there. I photographed an open, abandoned suitcase sitting alone on a wave-scoured landscape two miles from shore. I imagined a businessman, possibly staying miles away in a seashore hotel, scrambling to escape the inescapable surge of ocean. That was my moment of helplessness, felt while standing among complete destruction, all the while unable to capture an image that expressed the result of his possible fate.

My laptop, satellite phone, and digital cameras served as my portal to the world, while a pop-up tent, baby wipes, and rainy afternoons helped with daily hygiene as I was camped outside the CRS location. The Daily Salat, broadcast over a speaker from a nearby mosque, provided some comfort in an area reeking from unclaimed remains. The only hope I felt came from the smiles of the people I met and photographed. The local volunteers with me as I traveled on a military helicopter loaded with containers of fresh water. A young girl named Humaira, whom I followed for several days after seeing her peer from the window of a large tent sheltering residents. Some of her relatives, including her brother, had been swept away by the water as she grasped a palm tree for survival. Her smile while playing games with other young survivors surely masked her anguish of what had become of her family. — Karl Merton Ferron.