The tsunami struck the Maldives at around 9:30am local time. Residents had felt the earthquake but thought little of it. The Death toll from 2004 tsunami in the Maldives was 82, including two British tourists. An additional 40 others were missing.

The Maldives is so low that tsunami water swept over nearly every inch of the entire nation. There was no high ground---or even dry ground--- to run to.

The Maldives were not hit by destructive waves like the ones that struck Indonesia and Thailand. Rather the tsunami waves were like rising surges of water that swamped the islands. Islanders said the were no waves. Rather it felt like the islands were sinking. It took about five minutes for the water to surge and retreat.

The government said the entire population was affected and development was set back two decades. While there was not the huge loss of life like that suffered in other areas, buildings and infrastructure were badly damaged. One in three people and half the homes were affected. Infrastructure in some places was completely destroyed. Ten percent of the islands were made uninhabitable.

Damage from the Great Tsunami of 2004

Thirteen islands were completely evacuated after the tsunami and 70 others experienced disruptions of water supplies and electricity. Seventy-nine islands lacked safe drinking water, 26 had no electricity and 24 had no telephones and four islands lost all communications. The infrastructure on 20 of the islands was “completely destroyed.” Harbors, jetties and sewage systems were destroyed. More than 12,000 people were left homeless. The southern and central atolls suffered the worst damage. Almost all of Huura, an island located north of the main island of Male, was submerged. Beaches, palm trees, houses and boats---and perhaps most importantly thousand of tons of sand---were all swept away.

The international airport was made unusable. Two thirds of Male was flooded. A government spokesmen told Reuters, “The damage is considerable. The island is only about three feet above sea level and a wave of water four feet high swept over us.” The government declared a national disaster.

Damage could have been much worse were it not for reefs protecting the islands. The Maldives were father from the earthquake than Indonesia or Thailand but not that much further than Sri Lanka, The reefs were credited with absorbing much of the shock of the waves. The government was given credit for making such a strong effort to protect its coral reefs. The reefs themselves emerged from the disaster largely unscathed.

The long term effects in the environment of the Maldives were minimal. A report on the Maldives by the Australian government concluded: “There has been surprisingly little change to the reef flats, beaches and islands. There is also good news for the Maldivian fishing industry, with the tsunami causing little change in fishing conditions.” The study said that while the rising waters were destructive to building they had little impact on the islands themselves.

Damage on the Worst Hit Maldives Islands After the December 2004 Tsunami

On 1.6-kilometer-long, 300-meter-wide Kolhufushi water surged over the eastern side of the island, crashing through banana and mangrove groves, destroying homes and a 100-year-old mosque. One resident told the New York Times, “I thought the whole island was going to go....If it had lasted any loner, everything would have been swept away. Everyone would have perished.” The resident said he watched people swept out to sea as the water surged and saw some pulled back to land as the water retreated. He clung to a coconut tree in water that reached his chin. Sixteen of the island’s 1,230 residents died or went missing. Most were under 11 or over 60. All but five of the islands 174 houses were made inhabitable. The banana and mango groves were badly damaged by salt water poisoning.

Kandolhudhoo was turned into a “ghost island.” It was completely deserted. Homes were wrecked; communications were cut off; wells were contaminated with sea water. A U.S. Marine that was part of the relief team that visited the island told AP, “I was in Fallujah last summer and saw the devastation and damage there. But it was surgical and aimed at specific targets. Here it’s total, Everything is gone.”

Kandolhudhoo is less than a kilometer square. Some said that surg of water was three meters high. Three people were killed and 50 were injured. The entire population of 3,500 was evacuated. A week after the tsunami, debris from ruined houses, pieces of televisions and toys, and rotting fish stranded by the retreating water covered the streets.

Damage to the Resorts in the Great Tsunami of 2004

Twenty-one of the 87 resorts on the Maldives were closed. The Soneva Fushi in Baa Atoll and Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru in western North Male Atoll remained open. Soneva Gili on North Male’s Lanknfushi Island was closed because of widespread damage. The sea inundated most of the Four Season Resort Maldives at nearby Kuda Huras. Most of these reopened within a couple of months.

The White Sands resort & Spa was one of the worst hit islands. A tw0-meter-high tsunami wave appeared suddenly and was strong enough to send a surge of water through the resort and push guests against the walls of their rooms. Six people were injured but no one was killed. All the furniture and appliances were washed away. Guests had to sleep on the beach until they were airlifted out.

Over 17,000 foreign tourists were in the Maldives when the tsunami struck. It was the height of the Christmas-New Year season. Beachfront bungalow were flooded; their windows and balconies were shattered; power and communications was knocked out. Thousands were evacuated by hastily arranged charter flights.

The worst hit resorts were those on the eastern side of the Maldives, the side facing the tsunami. Several Italian soccer players, including A.C. Milan striker Filippo Inzaghi, Milan captain Paolo Maldini and Juventes defender Gianluca Zambrotta were in the Maldives when the tsunami struck. They were unhurt.

Relief, Tourism and the Maldives Economy After the December 2004 Tsunami

Residents of Maldives islands that were not hit so badly helped residents of islands that were hit hard. The Maldives was largely overlooked by international relief agencies. Even though its death toll was considerably lower than other places it suffered much more damage on a per capita basis. The estimated cost of reconstruction was initially estimated to be $1.3 billion. That is twice the Maldives GDP and the highest per capita reconstruction cost of any nation affected by the tsunami.

The Indian military provided assistance to the Maldives. The United States military visited but didn’t do that much. Most of their efforts was focused on Sri Lanka and Indonesia. United Nations Secretariat General Kofi Annan visited the Maldives. The Maldives needed to import large amounts of sand for construction and to replace sand that was washed away.

By some estimates 70 percent of the economy was destroyed. The economy was hit hard by the decline of tourism and the cost of rebuilding. Growth was reduced percent because the economy is so dependent on tourism and tourism was hit hard by the tsunami.

Most of the resorts were open after the tsunami. Some guest who had reservations after the disaster didn’t cancel them and went to the islands. Many tourists that were in the Maldives when the tsunami struck stayed on. The hotel occupancy rate remained at around 50 percent.

After the tsunami occupancy rates dropped to 15 percent in some places. Hotels that previously had a 100 percent occupancy had 40 percent. The Maldives tourism minster said afterward: “The Maldives is still the paradise of the Indian Ocean. Please visit us---that is the best way to contribute to the revival of our economy and our efforts at reconstruction.” Things had pretty much returned to normal by the 2005-2006 winter season.

Describing the impact of the disaster on tourism, Lisa Kalis and James Brooke wrote in the New York Times, “Because the Maldives, a popular diving destination, are so dependent on tourism, the nation's gross domestic product was expected to drop from a forecast 5.5 percent growth in 2005 to 1.5 percent, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Three weeks after the disaster, of the Maldives' 87 resorts, 63 were reported to be operational. Hassan estimated that most of the others would reopen in several months, but that it take a year for six that were badly damaged. "It will take a long time to get our industry back in shape," said Moosa Zameer Hassan of the Maldives tourism ministry. Some reefs close to shore have been silted over. "It will be a matter of a little more inconvenience," Hassan said. "You may have to go to the next reef for snorkeling." [Source: Lisa Kalis and James Brooke, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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