Ratte Kongwat Mai refuses to move away from her beachfront home. One year ago ocean waves measuring up to 21 meters obliterated her neighborhood in the tiny Thai fishing village of Ban Nam Khem, about 160 kilometers north of Phuket. The Asian tsunami killed nearly 1,000 people in the village, including Ratte's 8-year-old daughter. In the months that followed, the survivors could not simply grieve; they were forced to confront homelessness, joblessness, destitution and death threats from an ongoing legal dispute over the land, not to mention nightmares of a repeat of the massive disaster. Some of the villagers moved farther inland, but Ratte opted to rebuild her house and stay put. She believes the spirit of her lost daughter now roams the beaches, and she refuses to abandon the child. "I'm not afraid of tsunamis coming again—my daughter died here and now she lives here," she says. "Nothing could be worse than what happened last year."
Millions of people in coastal areas from Indonesia to Somalia obviously feel the same way. One year after a 9.1- magnitude earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra sparked a tsunami that killed 216,000 people in 11 countries and left about 2 million homeless, most of the affected residents are rebuilding in the very same coastal towns and villages. In Aceh, Indonesia, which bore the brunt of the Dec. 26 tsunami's fury, waterfront communities such as Lampuuk began laying cement on their own not long after the disaster—ignoring a suggestion from the central government not to rebuild closer than a kilometer to the shoreline. In Khao Lak, Thailand, five-star beach resorts have reopened and rehired former employees.
It's perhaps unrealistic to expect people or businesses to abandon their coastal communities. After all, the sea is critical to the livelihoods of most of the returnees. As Eric Schwartz, Bill Clinton's special envoy for tsunami recovery, puts it: "Disaster preparedness does not mean pushing people away from the shoreline." What it does mean is putting emergency systems in place that can save the lives of residents should there be another tsunami. On that crucial issue, Asian governments in the Indian Ocean region get poor marks thus far. While some countries are clearly more prepared to spot and respond to a tsunami than last year, others are not. And while various national disaster centers in the region are linked by computer, efforts to build a regional tsunami warning system have faltered.
Last year no country in the region had an early-warning system of any kind, nor any emergency-evacuation plans. Now only Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have deployed such systems. Even so, they can't communicate with one another, and some experts don't think they will allow authorities sufficient —time to evacuate coastal residents if a tsunami is detected. Thailand's system is somewhat makeshift and features tide gauges that are monitored for unusual variations following any nearby earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or higher. The catch is that it can take 30 minutes or longer to determine whether a tsunami has formed, leaving little or no time to order an evacuation. "I have to wait until the wave comes close to the shore," says Plodprasop Suraswadi, director of Thailand's National Disaster Warning Center. "It's very risky." And not exactly reliable: last July, 1 million people were mistakenly evacuated when officials misread the tide gauges.
Indonesia's warning system is said to be superior, but it also has its critics. Made in Germany, it features 10 monitoring buoys strung from Aceh to Bali. But the system activates only when a tsunami occurs, and does not provide daily signals to disaster officials. "You can imagine a system that lays dormant for years and years—you have no assurance that it's working," says Christian Meinig, director of engineering for the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. India won't have a warning system in place until at least 2007."
Part of the problem is that the world's best-regarded deep-sea tsunami assessment and reporting system—developed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and nicknamed the DART—has a two-year waiting list. NOAA didn't anticipate selling multiple systems commercially prior to the tsunami, and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where the system is manufactured, was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Soon after the disaster, officials talked of building a single, regionwide warning system in the Indian Ocean, but the idea stalled because diplomats could not agree on which country would host the operations center. Sovereignty issues—chiefly centered on the question of whether officials in one country could order citizens in another to evacuate—also could not be resolved. For now, the idea of a regional system is stalled.
While it may not be reasonable to expect citizens to move away from the coast, their return further complicates disaster plans. Many of them are more vulnerable now than before the tsunami hit. According to the British-based aid group Oxfam International, only 20 percent of the estimated 1.8 million people left homeless by the tsunami will be in houses by the start of the new year. In India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of victims still live in tents because there aren't enough temporary wooden or cement structures. In Aceh, where 170,000 people were killed and half a million left homeless, frustrated communities such as Lampuuk began rebuilding on their own, raising the specter of even more problems. "The topography in some of these areas was radically altered by the tsunami, and it may no longer be stable enough to build on," says one Aceh-based aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he's not authorized to speak to reporters. "But they're building on it anyway."
The reason for the rush is the same for the rich and the poor: their fortunes depend on the sea. Aside from a handful of fishermen who cast their nets aside in favor of living and working at inland palm-oil plantations, nearly all the survivors in Ban Nam Khem have returned and taken up their old jobs as fishermen or shop owners. "The villagers who own the land don't want to move," says Sakitian Pepliang, the village chief. "Where would they go?" Several kilometers down the road, dozens of employees of the Meridien beach resort scurry about preparing for the arrival of guests. The hotel had been open for only six weeks when the tsunami struck, killing 14 guests and staff. The resort reopened in mid-October to a smattering of European tourists. Other five-star hotels nearby are still shuttered—but with a multimillion-dollar investment at stake, along with the livelihoods of hundreds of Thai employees, the Meridien's owners quickly decided to rebuild, says Daniel Muhor, the resort's executive assistant manager.
Many of the returnees remain jittery. Supaphol, a 64-year-old furniture maker in Ban Nam Khem, erected a treehouse in the family's beachfront yard as a precaution against another giant wave. "There would be no time to run," he explains while standing on the treehouse ladder. "It's quicker just to climb." And what is to keep the tree from being toppled by another tsunami? Supaphol's daughter Oy, who lost her 15-year-old daughter in the disaster, says she recites Buddhist prayers daily to protect their rebuilt house and the tree, and ward off the threat of another monster wave. "I'm still scared," she says. Who can blame her?
With Lorien Holland in Kuala Lumpur© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.