Aerial Photography: The 2004 Asia Tsunami in Northern Sumatra Indonesia

An earthquake measuring 9.1-magnitude on the Richter scale struck an area off the west coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004. It triggered a series of tsunamis that inundated coastal areas in the Indian Ocean rim, from Indonesia to Somalia, affecting millions of people in fourteen countries.

Because there was no tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean, this resulted in a very high death toll, and widespread destruction of infrastructure affecting many livelihoods. More than 250,000 died in 14 countries. But, 221,000 of those killed were in the conflict-prone province of Aceh, amounting to the loss of one third of the population, also leaving another 500,000 people displaced. The city of Banda Aceh suffered terribly, as did every town south including Calang, Meulaboh, Leupung. Even the islands of Simeulue and Nias were hit.

The west-facing coastlines were struck by the highest waves, some more than 30m (98ft) high with a momentum of 140mph, decimating entire villages and wiped-out a third of Banda Aceh. Waves that hit the north-facing coastline of Banda Aceh were lower, about 12m (39ft) high, but the area’s low-lying land allowed those waves to penetrate far inland. Wave heights of 15m (50ft) high hit along the entire 100-km stretch of coast from Kreung Sabe to the northwest tip of the island.

Because Banda Aceh lies within 200km of the earthquake epicentre, this is classed as a ‘near field’  tsunami. The tsunami struck within 20 minutes of the earthquake, and as there was no early warning system in place, the rapid onset of the tsunami caused the massive loss of life throughout northern Sumatra.

I spent months in the affected areas and took this set of images between January and March 2005 on a mixture of civilian and military helicopters that were on humanitarian operations for the victims of the tsunami.