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Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Banda Aceh, Indonesia — Cars. Fishing boats. Houses. Entire villages. The 2004 tsunami left Banda Aceh with mountains of debris up to 4 miles inland.

Driving in the remade communities today, it’s easy to wonder where it all went. Some of it is still there — recycled into road materials, buildings and furniture. Some of it was burned, creating new environmental hazards. And most of it was simply washed out to sea.

Ten years after that gigantic wave engulfed this city of 4 million on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island on the day after Christmas, Banda Aceh has been almost totally restored. The tangled mountains of rubbish are gone, and it’s hard to imagine the destruction that once choked rivers, blocked streets and ripped up trees by the roots.

Still, authorities are concerned about the health and environmental risks posed by debris contaminated by oil, asbestos and medical waste sitting on the seafloor off the coast and in 32 unregulated dump sites around the city.

“Unsafe disposal of waste will cause further environmental damage in the long term,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who headed the Aceh and Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, which led the massive cleanup effort and was dissolved in 2009 after the job was judged finished.

Banda Aceh was the hardest hit city by the disaster, which devastated hundreds of communities in more than a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean.

The tsunami left an estimated 13 million cubic yards of debris here, most of it washed into the ocean, Mangkusubroto said. If all that was squeezed into a 2 1/2-acre field, it would create a tower of trash 3,000 feet tall.

Some waste inevitably got dumped at random sites around the city. They still contain leaky oil drums and asbestos-laced housing materials.

Hazardous waste that was found among the rubble was buried in a separate marked area inside the city’s landfill, according to Tomi Soetjipto, the Indonesia spokesman for the U.N. Development Program, which oversaw much of the cleanup. And nearly 50 tons of expired medications sit in a warehouse awaiting safe disposal.

Indonesian authorities say the cleanup was possible only with the help of the international community.

“Finally, the mounting tsunami rubbish was cleared. For such a huge job like that, the world didn’t leave us alone to face it,” Mangkusubroto said.

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