In the Wake of the Tsumani

On December 26, 2004, the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake spawned a tsunami that wreaked havoc on countries with coastlines bordering the Indian Ocean. Indonesia was hardest hit, with more than 130,000 people killed, 30,000 missing, half a million more displaced, and miles of coastline scraped clean of villages and trees.

Soon after the disaster, Elizabeth Frankenberg, associate professor of PPS, and Duncan Thomas, professor of economics, began to talk with colleagues at SurveyMETER, a research NGO in Indonesia, about conducting a study in the region. Frankenberg and Thomas have worked with the NGO since the mid 1990s on a number of longitudinal data collection projects.

In February 2005 Bondan Sikoki, Survey-METER’s director, discussed the idea with representatives from the Aceh branch of the Indonesian government’s national statistics bureau, Statistics Indonesia. The team designed a study that re-interviewed 39,500 individuals from the original 2004 survey who were living in nearly 600 villages Aceh and North Sumatra—some with heavy damage from the tsunami, and others relatively untouched.

The team spent five months designing data collection protocols, lining up funding,and recruiting and training interviewers. By May 2005, the researchers were in the field collecting data as part of the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery (STAR).

The survey has now been conducted four times since the disaster. Data from the project are being used to assess the impact of the tragedy on survival, health and well-being and to evaluate the impact of the assistance that flowed in afterwards.

“The project will fundamentally change the data available on disasters,” said Frankenberg. Most studies of groups affected by disasters are not based on a sample that represents the pre-disaster population, nor do they interview respondents more than once.

The STAR team has conducted yearly follow-up surveys and will continue to the 5-year mark, with the possibility of returning to the field eight or 10 years after the disaster. The data contain information at the individual, household and community level.

The STAR team was able to determine the survival status of 96 percent of respondents to the original 2004 survey and has collected extensive information about reconstruction efforts. An additional innovation is the use of satellite imagery of the area to create measures of the physical devastation caused by the tsunami.

Frankenberg and several team members published the first paper drawing on the research in the September 2008 American Journal of Public Health: “Mental Health in Sumatra After the Tsunami.” Based on interviews with more than 20,500 adult survivors, the paper examines the course of their reactions to the disaster over time, the variation associated with the degree of damage to the respondent’s original community.  It also assesses the correlation of post-traumatic stress reactivity (PTSR) to pre-disaster characteristics.

The research showed PTSR scores were highest among those in the most heavily damaged areas, and that age and gender were significant predictors of PTSR, with women having higher scores than men.  Socioeconomic status before the tsunami was largely unrelated to the intensity of reactions in the 18 months afterward.

Frankenberg is excited about the policy implications of STAR. She says the data can help measure the type and value of assistance and how to go about rebuilding communities after disasters.

“The degree of resilience of the people is inspirational,” she said. When the tsunami hit, Aceh was a conflict zone. Nine months afterward, a peace deal was reached between separatists and the Indonesian government and the focus had turned toward recovery.  Within two years, reconstruction was well under way in many coastal communities. 

Frankenberg points to amazing changes, such as the story of Irwandi Yusuf. A separatist movement operative, he was a prisoner when the tsunami hit, destroying the prison and allowing him to escape. In February 2007, he became the first directly elected governor of Aceh province.

Several other Duke researchers are also involved with STAR. In November, Frankenberg returned to Indonesia with programmer Peter Katz from the department of Economics and post-doctoral fellow Clark Gray. Public policy PhD student Ava Cas is coauthoring a paper with Frankenberg drawing from the project.

STAR is funded by grants from the World Bank, the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation. The team prepares annual reports for the government of Indonesia and ultimately will place the data in the public domain.