GEORGE TOWN: At 700m from shore, the killer tsunami in 2004 was no more than a fast-moving, white capped wave for Kampung Pulau Betong fisherman Ahmad Din.
But he found himself with a front row seat to the horror on land when the tsunami hit the Balik Pulau side of Penang.
“There was no warning. I had just laid out my gillnet when the foam-crested wave rushed by my boat. In seconds, it became a wall of water that crashed onto the shore.”
Ahmad, 59, said the tide rose and fell violently for more than an hour before it was calm enough for him to return to Sungai Pulau Betong where he was greeted by pure disaster.
“Our wooden jetties were all gone. There wasn’t a single boat in the water. Everything was washed almost 100m into our village.”
In seconds, 2,387 sampans and 271 boats were damaged or sunk when the tsunami hit the coastal areas of Penang, Perak, Kedah and Perlis.
Of the 5,997 fishermen who lost their livelihood, 3,549 were from Penang.
“They no longer have boats and nets,” said Pulau Betong assemblyman Muhammad Farid Saad.
Overnight, fish became a rare commodity in markets throughout the northern region. Even Thailand did not have fish to spare because the tsunami had laid waste to the fishermen’s villages there, too.
“The wave overturned the lives of our fishermen almost immediately. But the Government wasted no time in helping the people to recover,” he said.
Just 10 days after the tsunami, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the then Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister, announced a RM50mil fund for affected fishermen to repair or replace their boats and equipment.
“Both Agro Bank and the Fisheries Development Authority got instructions to cut red tape and expedite the fishermen’s applications. At least 103 jetties in the four states were destroyed, and rebuilding cost amounted to RM1.69mil,” Muhammad Farid said.
He added that the state distributed about RM13mil from the TYT Disaster Relief Fund to 2,922 affected fishermen in Penang.
Seven years after the jetties in Pulau Betong and Sungai Burung were replaced with wooden ones, the authorities spent another RM500,000 upgrading the jetties and building concrete ones.
Reminiscing on the disaster, Balik Pulau MP Datuk Seri Hilmi Yahya said his constituency had come a long way since the tsunami.
“We have rebuilt all the infrastructure and it is even better now,” he said.
Just a day after the fishermen’s fund was announced, then Deputy Finance Minister Tan Sri Dr Ng Yen Yen declared that money from the RM100mil allocated for national housing projects in 2005 would be used to help tsunami victims rebuild their homes.
Named Rumah Mesra Rakyat (People-Friendly Housing Scheme), the houses would be built at the request of the victims, she had said, adding that it would be implemented in Langkawi and Kota Kuala Muda in Kedah, and Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Balik Pulau and Seberang Prai in Penang.
In a sense, the tsunami has been a blessing in disguise for those rendered homeless.
The tsunami victims, many of whom lived in humble kampung houses, were given three-bedroom brick houses with modern amenities.
Under the scheme, the people would pay either RM100 monthly for 22 years or RM50 monthly for 44 years to get their new homes.
By May 2006, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak – who was deputy then – announced that 1,066 houses were to be built in Kuala Muda in Kedah, and in Seberang Prai Utara and Tanjung Bungah in Penang.
In Penang, the state had proposed to build five-storey walk-up flats costing RM9mil on a 0.8ha plot in front of the Tanjung Bungah floating mosque to resettle 100 families affected by the tsunami.
Then state executive councillor Datuk Azhar Ibrahim said the units, costing RM80,000 each, would be given free to victims.
Within five months of the tsunami, Najib said the Government had disbursed RM65.19mil in aid through various federal and state agencies.
Although this was the worst natural disaster to ever hit Malaysia, reparations and aid came at an amazing speed.
Unicef Malaysia representative Gaye Phillips reported in December 2006: “The situation in Malaysia is radically different from what you would find in countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
“In Malaysia, the physical signs and scars of the tsunami have almost disappeared in the last two years. Schools were quickly in operation soon after the tsunami struck, hospitals are working and people are back in houses built by the Government.”