The Foreign Service Journal, March 2024

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2024 39 Diplomacy series: Dealing with Dragons, Bears, and Some Nice People Too: A Diplomatic Chronicle. On December 26, the Asian tsunami struck. The whole EAP [East Asia and Pacific Affairs] Bureau worked around the clock from that day on to coordinate the U.S. government response and facilitate various trips out there. [Secretary of State] Colin Powell set out immediately to visit the region, so we put together a briefing book for him on a crash basis. At the same time the State Department had a task force going, we were working to put together assistance, and to get the U.S. military engaged. The province of Aceh in Indonesia was absolutely devastated. It was just scraped clean, the town of Banda Aceh on the coast was obliterated. … We had a carrier battle group, the USS Lincoln, that was in liberty in Hong Kong on the day the tsunami struck. It was on its way home from the Persian Gulf. Admiral [Thomas B.] Fargo, the commander of Pacific Forces, turned them around that very day, the day of the tsunami, and they began steaming for Indonesia. They got there by January 1 and began providing assistance. The U.S. was, by any measure, the first nation to respond. We also had a Marine battle group, the Belleau Woods, on its way to the Persian Gulf, that was diverted and sent to Aceh. Those two battle groups did an absolutely fabulous job saving lives. In Aceh, there was no clean water, no food, no medical facilities; the military provided all of that to survivors. We also brought a hospital ship, the USS Mercy, which arrived about a month after. But the crucial thing that the first responders did was to bring in bladders of clean water and to send their helicopters out for search and rescue because there were a lot of people trapped in isolated areas. The coast road had been destroyed. They plucked them out and brought them to safety. It was very, very impressive. Of course we immediately began getting food out there, as well. I got to see it twice. Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, went out to visit in February, and I went along on that trip. He was a former ambassador to Indonesia and was very deeply concerned about the tragedy; he also wanted to observe the heavy military involvement in the relief effort. Then I returned in early May when Bob Zoellick, who was now deputy secretary of State, went out. I saw in the two and a half months interval that there had been some progress in cleaning the debris and very tentative attempts at rebuilding. But it was clear that the region was going to take a generation, at least, to recover. … That first time we landed on the airstrip at Banda Aceh, it was like a scene out of “Apocalypse Now.” It was crazy. We arrived on a C-130 from Thailand that was loaded with food, really well supplied. The aircraft parked in the middle of a landing strip, and we got out. My God, there’s a helicopter zooming by! And here there are people coming over to greet Wolfowitz, right under the shadow of the plane. Somebody else has the back door open, and they’re taking out relief supplies; here comes another plane landing from some Dutch NGO. It was chaotic, dangerous, and hotter than hell. But by golly, they did fabulous work. On Dec. 26, 2004, a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean with a devastating impact on coastal Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. Banda Aceh, Sumatra, shown here, was one of the hardest hit areas, with the highest death toll and destruction of most homes. U.S. military personnel assisted local authorities using helicopters to transport supplies, bringing in disaster relief teams, and to support humanitarian airlifts to tsunami-stricken coastal regions. U.S. NAVY It was chaotic, dangerous and hotter than hell. But by golly, they did fabulous work. —Marie Therese Huhtala