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The U.S. Response to the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia

(2005) USAID Indonesia | Flickr
(2005) USAID Indonesia | Flickr

The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004 killed over 275,000 people in 14 different countries. In Aceh, Indonesia alone, over 130,000 people perished. The tsunami left in its wake ruined infrastructure, dislocated families, and other political, economic, and social challenges.

In response to the tsunami and it ruinous effects, the international community together donated over 7 billion dollars in aid to Indonesia. Up until that point, this was the most generous outpouring of financial assistance that any one country had ever received during a natural disaster.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as other U.S. agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense, together allocated over 400 million dollars in emergency aid to Indonesia. USAID led the effort, providing immediate support in the areas of food, water, shelter, sanitation, and medicine. As time has passed, USAID has continued to work in Indonesia to support survivors and rebuild affected communities, focusing on education initiatives, job creation, infrastructure improvement, and proper governance.

When the tsunami hit, Andrew Natsios was working as the USAID administrator in Washington, D.C. His story details the rapid response of USAID to the crisis abroad, including interesting events and key aspects of what it took to properly mobilize the agency and support those affected.

During his career, Natsios also held positions with the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs, World Vision, and the Sudanese Embassy.

Andrew Natsios’ interview was conducted by Carol Peasly on April 24, 2018.

Read Natsios’ full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Ashley Young

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“It was… a mammoth disaster… One hundred and twenty-five thousand people had been killed within a half an hour because of the wall of water coming in.”
(2005) U.S. Navy, Tyler J. Clements | Wikimedia Commons
(2005) U.S. Navy, Tyler J. Clements | Wikimedia Commons

In the Beginning: Q: Okay. I was back in Washington, and was actually in Ukraine with Fred Schieck when we were observing the electoral results, when the earthquake in Aceh and the tsunami occurred on December 26. I think it was the day after Christmas in 2004.

NATSIOS: It was.

Q: It was such a mammoth disaster throughout Asia. I know that AID played a very important role, that you were convening a group, and Mark Ward and Bill Garvelink headed up your task force, but I wonder if you could talk a bit about that process?

NATSIOS: I called a meeting of the senior staff, and I said, “We don’t want any fighting between OFDA [Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance], Food for Peace and the emergency sides of the regional bureaus. If you all fight with each other it will compromise the effort and make the Agency look bad. You guys have got to find a way to work together.” They used to fight all the time, as you may know. The emergency people want everything done immediately. They just try to save lives. The career people on the development side want to build institutions and do development. I said, “You need to work this out.” Of course, the tsunami also hit Bangladesh, the Indian coast, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and it eventually hit Somalia, killing people there. It went all across the Indian Ocean, which is difficult to imagine.

I remember, we dispatched a DART [Disaster Assistance Response Team] within a few days. I was taking the week off for the holidays, which I felt was appropriate because the OFDA director was handling things and the DART teams were being deployed. Armitage called me. It was a day after, and told me I needed to come in immediately. He called me three times while I was in the car. He said, “The Secretary’s sitting here waiting.” I said, “Rich, I’m driving in from my house in Silver Spring (Maryland).

I got there. The Secretary was sitting down, and asked, “Well, what else can we do?” I said, “My suggestion, Mr. Secretary, is that you go to the signing ceremony in Nairobi for the Sudanese peace deal,” because the agreement had been reached. I said, “I really would like to go to the signing ceremony. And then you and I can go to Aceh in the presidential plane.” Jeb Bush came with us. The head of FEMA[Federal Emergency Management Agency] also came, but the guy didn’t say a peep the whole time. This was before Hurricane Katrina. When we got to Aceh, it looked like Hiroshima. One hundred and twenty-five thousand people had been killed within a half an hour because of the wall of water coming in. The mission director was Bill Frei; he did a terrific job mobilizing the Mission.

The Visibility of USAID: Herbie Smith, who is the current mission director in Afghanistan but was a Food for Peace officer at the time of this crisis in Indonesia, had 50,000 stickers of our new logo printed. Big letters of “USAID: From the American People,” with the logo. He put them on everything, which made USAID’s role very visible.

Barbara Turner tells this wonderful story. There was a front-page photograph in the Washington Post of an AID box of pharmaceuticals with the sticker. There is a DOD helicopter behind it. Barbara’s young nephew, who was nine years old at the time, said, “I gave my allowance to help the people in Aceh, Aunt Barbara, but I want to go for a 95 ride on the USAID helicopter!” Barbara said, “We don’t have any helicopters.” He said, “I saw it in the newspaper.” Barbara said, “What are you talking about?” She looked at the picture and she realized he had seen the box, and he had transferred in his own mind the logo onto the helicopter, even though it was not on the helicopter.

I mean, how much money would it have cost to advertise AID’s good work accomplished than one photograph like that? It was so powerful…

“I held press conferences all over the world that one day. It was a massive amount of media coverage that the State Department orchestrated, embassy by embassy, around the world.”

Handling the Media: The head of UNOCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance) was anti-American. He was a Norwegian and former head of the Norwegian Red Cross. He is a nice enough guy, but he is very hostile to the United States, historically. He said that all donors, particularly the United States, were being cheap in their response. The United States made an initial $5 million donation, but I said, “We’re not going to commit any more until after the initial assessment.” We had a fast assessment process; it only takes three days. His criticism went viral around the world.

The State Department said, “We’re putting you on with the media all day long.” I’ll never forget it. They said, “You are now going to be the point person to reverse this thing.” They had me for 10 hours, Carol, doing interviews every 15 minutes with media all over the world. Latin American, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States. I held press conferences all over the world that one day. It was a massive amount of media coverage that the State Department orchestrated, embassy by embassy, around the world.

Powell and I met Kofi Annan in Jakarta, because there was a pledging conference there that we stayed for. I remember a private meeting scheduled with the heads of UN agencies—UNICEF, WFP, UNDP and UNOCHA—with Kofi Annan. Colin Powell said, “You know, I don’t want AID running this whole thing. When is the United Nations going to arrive so they can take this operation over? We are running the whole thing now. I just went out there. There are no UN personnel to be found. It’s all entirely USAID.”

“The United States had a 28 percent approval rating prior to the tsunami…. Two months after the disaster… the U.S. approval rating had risen to 63 percent.”
(2005) USAID Indonesia | Flickr
(2005) USAID Indonesia | Flickr

Deepening Relationships: The ambassador to Indonesia at the time was a good ambassador. I can’t remember his name now; he later became Under-Secretary-General of Political Affairs at the UN. He said, “Andrew, you don’t know the positive effect the U.S. response to the Tsunami has had on our diplomatic relationship with Indonesia.” The United States had a 28 percent approval rating prior to the tsunami. Bin Laden had a 58 percent approval rating; Indonesia is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. Two months after the disaster, five Indonesian newspapers did surveys, and found the U.S. approval rating had risen to 63 percent, while Bin Laden’s approval rating collapsed to 25 percent. As the newspapers were saying, “Where is our friend, Bin Laden? The United States, who we really don’t like, they’re here helping us. Bin Laden doesn’t care about us.” We did damage to Bin Laden’s reputation in the country because of the favorable public diplomacy the U.S. effort had. Some people said, “Well, you did this just to get the good publicity.” I said, “Well, that’s not true. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” But it was a lesson.

Q: It also just showed how quickly the U.S. is able to mobilize in these circumstances.

NATSIOS: Yes, it is, with the U.S. military. AID has always had a very productive relationship with the military in emergencies. They are able to recognize that AID has more expertise in disaster response, and they help us. They have done it very successfully in other places.

Presidential Involvement: Q: One other interesting part of Aceh was when George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined together. The president had asked them to do a private fundraising exercise. I’m wondering the degree to which you had any involvement with them and whether that was an interesting dimension to this?

NATSIOS: The two of them came to visit us in my office and the Point Four conference room because we assembled the AID staff that had worked on this and did two things. First, we had a big event downstairs in the Reagan building with about 150 AID staff. There were about 22 TV cameras, I remember, in the back. The president came and spoke. Powell was with us. This was in mid-January of 2005. Bill Clinton did it separately on a different day. And H.W. came, “41.” They came to my office to take pictures. Bill Clinton said, “You know, my two heroes are Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, and you have a picture of Roosevelt and an ink portrait of Churchill.” He went over to look at them. He said, “Tell me why you like them so much.” I explained that there was a young woman who was 23 years old and had just graduated from Georgetown. She had joined AID, and she was in a convoy in Darfur on the DART team. A sharpshooter from one of the militias shot her right through the face. She lost her eye, and she almost bled to death. We took a med-evac (medical evacuation) to get her out. They stopped the bleeding. They gave her a moveable glass eye that looks exactly like her other eye. It moves with her other eye because of the muscle. You cannot tell she lost her eye. That was her first day back at work, the day Bush and Clinton came. They both went up to her and hugged her in the meeting. It was very emotional. Half the staff was crying when they went up to hug her. I think it had a good morale effect on the career staff. We asked Mark Ward to accompany the two former Presidents to Indonesia to view the devastation and aid programs.

“We didn’t ask for money, we just reported and thousands of people gave money in hurricane relief, with no restrictions.”

Models for the Future: Q: Do you think that kind of effort of mobilizing private resources to complement what AID and the government were doing on the ground is a useful model?

NATSIOS: Absolutely. George P. Bush, the General Land Commissioner for Texas, was Jeb Bush’s son and was given the task by Governor Abbott of leading the temporary housing program in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. He asked me to do a report on the reconstruction effort after Harvey with reform recommendations. When I was doing interviews in Houston on Hurricane Harvey for George P. Bush, I learned that Harris County, which includes Houston, one of the largest counties in the country with four and a half million people, set up a similar fund using the same model. They actually said, “We used the Aceh fundraising model that Bush and Clinton created. We raised $122 million in six weeks, with no advertising. We didn’t ask for money, we just reported and thousands of people gave money in hurricane relief, with no restrictions.” When Bush’s report came out in late August 2018, it included a recommendation to replicate this public private response to disasters in future emergencies. But it came from Hurricane Harvey.

Q: That’s interesting and nice to see. AID at the center of new model once again!



BA in Political Science, Georgetown University                                                                                  1967–1971
Joined USAID                                                                                                                                                   1989
Washington, D.C.—Director of USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)
Assistant Administrator for Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs (BHA)                                             1989–1993
Washington, D.C.—USAID Administrator                                                                                           2001–2006