On remote Breueh Island, northern Sumatra, lie two fishing villages, Lhoh and Lampuyang, which serve as home to local fishermen. Lhoh faces west on the island's inlet. Lampuyang is on the other side, much closer to the island's mountains. Lhoh is smaller and is known for its popular coffee shop. Lampuyang is larger, richer, and has a vibrant downtown and the local mosque.

Stories of fishing adventures were being swapped the late December morning that a massive earthquake shook the region. Minutes later, a Lhoh villager shouted, "The water is disappearing!" The quake had moved thousands of square miles of ocean bottom to the east, triggering three gigantic waves—a tsunami of frightening proportions.

Mohammed, the Lampuyang village headman, heard shouts from people running from the beach. He started to run also. He looked toward the ocean and saw "water like a mountain." Immediately, Mohammed looked toward his home, his wife, and his child. "I turned around and looked, blinked in fear, and they were all gone."

The powerful tsunami scoured villages from the island landscape, and gigantic waves created a whirlpool one mile across. About one-third of the villages' people reached safety in the hills and mountains. They waited three days and three nights for what they thought was the end of the world.

All told, more than 130,000 Indonesians died in the 2004 tsunami. About 200,000 houses, 1,900 schools, and countless businesses were also destroyed. The tsunami assaulted what really counts in Sumatran life—families and villages that are self-sustaining and strongly independent.

Breueh Island's 500 survivors eventually crowded onto one undamaged boat and headed east for refuge. They found Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, decimated. ...

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