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In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami ravaged hundreds of miles of coast in Asia and destroyed the lives of millions. Tanita Cross caught up with one of the companies on the ground in the wake of the disaster to refl ect on lessons learned from the tragedy.

On 26th December 2004, just off the western cost of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia, an earthquake that reached 9.2 on the Richter scale threatened the lives of five million people. The gigantic shift of 1,200km of tectonic plate thrust waves of up to 30 feet high as much as 2km inland. According to the US Geological Survey, the tsunami unleashed energy equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Figures released by Oxfam show that 1.7 million people were made homeless, half a million were injured and 230,000 lost their lives in the disaster. In the immediate aftermath, government agencies, aid organisations and private companies worked tirelessly to rescue who they could and helped them to at least begin to rebuild their lives.



International SOS was one of the firms on the ground in some of the worst-affected areas of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, the company supported its corporate clients with advice and information, help with missing person searches and evacuations out of the region. However, in Aceh, Indonesia, International SOS’ role had a much wider scope.


Mike Hancock, Group Deputy Director of Operations at International SOS, who was in Indonesia in 2004, explained: “This was much more of a humanitarian response. The relationship here leveraged our very good local knowledge, response team and language capability. Support work on the ground in Banda Aceh included guiding and advising government agencies and NGOs. This quickly developed into providing medical and training support in one of the main hospitals in Banda Aceh, triaging critical patients and coordinating evacuations to external agencies, such as USS Mercy.”

International SOS also set up the North Sumatra Relief Fund to collate donations generated by clients and staff. The company raised US$325,000 in total, all of which was invested in the Aceh healthcare system. The team also spent a further 18 months working closely with government agencies in Indonesia to support the local health system.

The difficulties encountered during aid and rescue operations after the Boxing Day tsunami have been well documented. Roads and bridges were damaged, hundreds of thousands of homes were ruined and jetties to remote islands were completely destroyed. Yet, the obstacles to reaching people in trouble began before anyone even tried to move.

“The largest problem was with the management of information. It was very difficult to know who was involved, who was impacted and who was in trouble. In many cases clients did not have visibility of their employees’ holiday travel. Much of the communications network was affected and many individuals had lost possessions, including their mobile phones,” said Mike.

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