GREAT TSUNAMI OF 2004 IN INDIA
The tsunami hit the Nicobar and Andaman Islands of India about 30 minutes after the Sumatra earthquake and mainland southern India after two hours, or 8:30am local time. Some people felt the tremor. Fishermen who were at sea felt the sea rise, slowly sink and observed the water turn dark then white. On the shores of some places a wall water taller than the trees washed ashore and carried away everything n its path and then sucked it out to seas. There cries shouts and people running. Many women grabbed a many children as they could.
As of March 2005, 10,700 people were listed as dead and 5,600 others were still missing. Around 650,000 were left homeless. Less of big deal was made about the victims in India perhaps because there were fewer of them than in other tsunami-hit countries and India is so used to major disasters.
Many locals blamed local gods and gods of the sea for the disaster. After the tsunami a volcano on Barren Island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain roared to life. It was the first time it had erupted since 1996. A mud volcano on Baratnag Island also erupted.
Great Tsunami of 2004 on Mainland India
On mainland India the December 2004 tsunami struck the southeast coast of the state of Tamil Nadu the hardest. The worst hit area was in the district of Nagapattinam, where, as of mid January 2005, around 7,100 bodies had been recovered and 1,570 were missing. Most the dead were women and children. More than 2.500 children were lost here. The men, mostly fisherman, were out at sea where it was relatively safe, or were inland working at jobs, or were better able to make a run for it and better able to survive if swept away. Of the 206 bodies found at one village, 96 were women, 84 were children and 26 were men. Most of 200 to 300 missing were children.
About a third of the known dead came from around the villages of Keechanguppam and Akkarapatti. Around 3,500 died there. The largest number of missing were from around Vailankanni, six miles south of Nagaoattinam. As of mid January more than 900 were confirmed dead and 900 were missing.
Twenty boys playing a game of pick up hockey on Marina beach in Madras were all swept away. The first indications that a the tsunami was coming was a quiet rising of the sea that began swallowing homes and carrying people away. In Madras a wall of water appeared in the sea that stretched cross the horizon. A harbor pilot in Madras told the Los Angeles Times, “It looked as if the whole ocean was boiling over. The water was just rising up, spilling over the breakwater and covering the entire jetty. Then just as quickly the sea began retreating taking people and boats, including a 12,000-ton container ship, with it.
A 43-year-old fisherman who was mending nets under a tree in Nagapattinam told Newsweek: “There was a roar, and before I could get up and run, a wall of water about 30 feet high devoured me. I held my breath to keep the salt water from entering my mouth. I knew I was dying...I started looking around for my family but could only see bodies, mostly women and children, lying all around, still and contorted. I saw dazed men and shrieking women trying to walk away from the sea...We all have seen rough seas, cyclones and high tides. But nobody ever saw or heard of such a thing coming from our sea.”
Some of the dead were cremated. Others were quickly buried in mass graves in part to curb the spread of disease. Many survivors felt guilty because they had survived and loved ones had not. One woman told the the New York Times, “I killed the children. I forced them to come to my house.” She had earlier encouraged her daughter and grandchildren to come live with her. She had grabbed the children in the tsunami but lost her grip. Afterwards she refused to eat. A girl who survived with her siblings but lost her mother, said, “Our mother could not run fast. We are young: we ran away faster.”
A seven-year-old Indian boy allegedly survived after a his dog “nipped and nudged” him up a hill to safety.
December 2004 Tsunami Strikes Madras
The Los Angeles Times reported: “At a dawn Mass the day after Christmas, as Father Maria Devanesan lifted the host above his head in reverence, the large white wafer began to tremble. It was 6:30 a.m. in southern India. A tremor had traveled more than 1,000 miles, speeding through the Earth's crust from the seabed off Indonesia to the seashore of India. Now it rattled the pews of St. Thomas Cathedral. [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]
“The members of the 500-strong congregation, many of them poor Tamil fishermen and their families who live in shanties at the nearby beach, rose from their knees in fear and ran from the 108-year-old church. Father Maria hurried down the stone steps from the altar, following his parishioners, who were too afraid to receive Communion. Outside, people rousted from sleep ran from their homes in panic. When the shaking subsided, the priest persuaded a small group to follow him into the cathedral to pray at the statue of Our Lady of Mylapore, an icon of a woman adorned in gold leaf, joyously anticipating the birth of Christ. The congregants cried and prayed, thankful that there had been no serious damage from the quake and that the crisis had passed. [Ibid]
“About two hours after he had first felt the tremor Father Maria was back in the cathedral leading Mass when he heard a whisper from the catechist. The man was shaking as he approached. "The seawater has reached the steps to the beach, so kindly pray for the people," he said. "And try to finish it fast, Father." In just a few minutes, Father Maria rushed to the concrete steps behind the compound's school campus. The sea had climbed about 15 feet and stopped, as if by a miracle, just inches before it would have flooded the cathedral grounds. [Ibid]
“The water was an oily black. But Father Maria immediately thought of the Red Sea and Charlton Heston as Moses. "I saw the picture 'The Ten Commandments,' " he said. "That was only cinema. We didn't believe it. But here we saw it. Naturally, it created some shock." Outside the church, umbrella repairman Raju, 45, and his sister Maliga, 37, had been sitting in the sand in front of their shanty on the beach, chatting and watching the fishermen come and go. The surf, about 30 yards away, had not betrayed the tsunami that was still racing beneath the surface of the ocean, gradually slowing down as it neared shore. [Ibid]
“As the wave hit the more shallow coast, Maliga heard only the idle chatter of her family and friends against the white noise of morning life in the shanties. "We didn't hear anything," said Maliga, who, like many Indian Tamils, uses one name. "It was like a silent wave." Only when they saw the water suddenly rising did they know something was wrong. At the first scream from the shoreline, they ran for the steps up to the church and watched the sea swallow their one-room home. [Ibid]
“Nine miles away, from the control tower on one of the piers at the harbor of Madras, signal boatswain Guruswamy Napolean, had a 270-degree view of one of southeastern India's busiest ports. About 9:05 a.m., just before Father Maria's catechist whispered his warning, Napolean noticed a swirling eddy of white foam, like water being pulled down a large drain. He wondered aloud whether it was a big fish. The rest of the crew laughed. Less than five minutes later, a wall of water stretched across the horizon. [Ibid]
“The flood into Madras knocked out the control tower's power. Then, just when Napolean thought the worst was over, the water level in the harbor suddenly dropped, and the current started to suck the ships toward the sea. The first to go, a container ship about 650 feet long and weighing up to 12,000 tons, snapped free of its bonds. The order went out over the radio for all ships to drop anchor. [Ibid]
“The towers' radios crackled with panicked voices from ships' bridges. "I just kept hearing people shouting at me: 'Please, I need immediate assistance! I need immediate assistance!' " Napolean recalled. " 'I need help! I need help!' " In the enclosed harbor, hulking ships converged in a tight circle as the water swirled and the masses of steel collided like drunken sailors. About half an hour later, the Internet and 24-hour TV news stations began to broadcast the first reports of death and mayhem around the Indian Ocean. [Ibid]
Great Tsunami of 2004 in the Andaman Islands
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie north of Sumatra and the epicenter of the earthquake, which was so powerful it shifted some of the Nicobar Islands 100 feet to the southwest. The tsunami ripped apart homes, tore up jetties, toppled coconut trees and smashed fishing boats. In some places there was so much damage simply figuring out how to dispose of the debris was a big problem. Many aftershocks occurred in the area which set off worries about more tsunamis.
As of late January 2005, 1,899 were confirmed dead and another 5,537 were missing on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Several entire communities were washed away Almost 300,000 of 356,000 people living on the islands were affected. More than 40,000 were left homeless and moved into refugee camps. 9,000 were evacuated to Port Blair.
Most of the damage was in the Nicobar chain, which lies closest to the epicenter of the earthquake. Katchal was the worst hit island. The island is barely above sea level and is believed to have been almost completely inundated by water. As of January 20, 4,310 of its 5,312 residents were missing. Another 345 were confirmed dead.
Thirty minutes after the earthquake in Sumatra Car Nicobar was struck by tsunami waves, which survivors said were 30 to 50 feet high. Car Nicobar is a flat island. Entire villages and an Indian Air Force base were swept away. An estimated 1,200 were dead or missing. A total of 102 air men at the base were killed, the majority swept out to sea. A distress signal sent from the base alerted government officials on the mainland that a tsunami hit the islands. Military planes were immediately dispatched to Car Nicobar but no one stopped to think that the tsunami was heading to the east coast of India.
The Katchal islands were devastated. Some villages were completely submerged and remained that way after the tsunami receded. The West Bay was partly submerged and surrounded by sea water. Many people were trapped there. Those that escaped negotiated some very difficult terrain. Large areas were described as slush. There was no safe drinking water. Survivors lived off bananas and coconuts.
Survivors of the Tsunami of 2004 in the Andaman Islands
The chief of the Great Andamanese tribe told AP that after the earthquake he ordered his people to flee. “No one was hurt....The water was rushing up very fast. It seemed to be following us. We stayed in the forest for five days. There was some rice. We ate that. Then there was nothing, so we went hungry.” Most of the tribesmen lost their homes and everything they owned. All members were airlifted to Port Blair so the could get food, water and health care.
One British tourist told AFP: “We were here on our first marriage anniversary to see the emerald green ocean. But on that day, it began to swell and turn black and we decided to run...And oh God we never ran like that before. But still the water caught up with us, and it is a miracle that we are alive today.”
One man was found alive after 25 days on remote Pillow Panja island where everyone else appeared to have died. The backwash of the first large wave of the tsunami pulled him out to sea but the waves from a second large wave pushed him back on the island. After the water receded he discovered he was the only person alive. He was injured and managed to survive for 25 days on nothing but coconuts until he was rescued in his underwear, waving a flag made from his clothes.
A 14-year-old boy clung to a tree for 10 days on Car Nicobar without food or water before being plucked to safety by a helicopter. He told AFP, “I used to cry, but after a few days tears wouldnn’t t come to my eyes. I had nothing to eat, no water to sip and there was no help...I didn’t now how to swim and so I clung to the tree for 10 days as sea waters didn’t recede from my village.
Babies Survive the Tsunami in the Andaman Islands
The Washington Times and AP reported: As she fled the killer waves swallowing her island, Namita Roy gave birth to a boy in a forest. On another island, 8-month-old Michael Jeremiah slipped out of his mother’s arms and sank into the sea until his father saw his toe poke up from the waves and brought him back to life. The babies’ tales from the Andaman and Nicobar islands will become part of the folklore of miraculous survivals of the catastrophic December 2004 earthquake and tsunamis. [Source: Washington Times, AP, January 2, 2005]
“It’s all God’s grace,” said Lakshmi Narayan Roy, 34, a rickshaw puller whose wife, Namita, delivered their baby in the forest on Hut Bay island, where they were taking shelter. Mr. Roy had just made tea for his wife, who was expecting her baby on Jan. 15. Then the Earth shook, and Mr. Roy raced out of the house with his pregnant wife and their 6-year-old son, Saurabh. Mr. Roy put his wife on his bicycle rickshaw and began lugging her uphill. Minutes later, Mr. Roy’s home was flattened, like hundreds of others on the island. [Ibid]
“Hours later, as they and some 700 people hunkered down on the highest point of the island, in the dark forest, Mrs. Roy began having pains. “My stomach hurts. I think the baby wants to come,” Namita said. A nurse was found among the crowd and she took over, demanding hot water, thread, cloth. Just after 4 a.m. on the day after the tsunami the Roys’ baby as born---a second son---with the help of a nurse who also had fled the tsunami. But the jungle delivery was crude, and Mrs. Roy had lost a lot of fluid. They went down the hill on the rickshaw, this time with the new family member in tow, to a medical center. There, a navy officer alerted a ship. [Ibid]
“But the tsunami had smashed the jetties and the ship couldn’t get to shore. Mr. Roy and his friends lifted the new mother above their heads and carried her through the waist-deep water, while another friend followed with the baby. In a Port Blair hospital, a doctor named the boy Tsunami. “I like the name. I won’t change it,” said Namita Roy, swaddling her son in a towel. “I will remember that day forever,” Lakshmi Roy said. “I am sure he will fight with me when he grows up, though, for giving him a feminine name.” [Ibid]
“Hundreds of miles south, on the island of Chowra, coconut-plantation owner Jeremiah, his wife, Safra, teenage daughter Lilian, and 8-month-old Michael were on their way to church in their village of Kuitasuli. “We had planned we would all pray together. But suddenly, the Earth started shaking,” said Safra who, like her husband, uses a single name. They all started running, but the tsunami had ripped up the road running along the coast. [Ibid]
“Safra, who recounted her ordeal from the Govind Vallabh Pant Hospital in Port Blair, stumbled and fell on top of her son. Suddenly, they found themselves floating in the water, helplessly being flung toward debris, hurtling past furniture and TVs . Safra, exhausted, said she lost her grip on Michael and watched in horror as he drifted away. Another wave came and Michael sank below the surface. “We wanted to die as well, just flow away with the water,” Safra said. Then, her husband yelled: “The toe. The toe.” Jeremiah lunged forward and grabbed his son’s toe, and lifted him up. All three survived to rejoin other family members. [Ibid]
Crocodiles Stalks Tsunami Survivors in the Andaman Islands
After the Great December 2004 Asian tsunami, AFP reported from Port Blair, India: “Large crocodiles are lurking around broken moats and sunken piers, frightening survivors fleeing the tsunami-hit Indian Ocean island of Hut Bay, wildlife wardens say. The predators have left their natural habitat in creeks near the ravaged island and are crowding around damaged jetties, prompting coast guard personnel to take action to avoid attacks, the officials told AFP on Monday."Some of them are as long as 10 feet (3.3 metres)," forest and wildlife warden Mohammad Hanifa said after reaching the Andaman and Nicobar capital of Port Blair. Hut Bay is located island about four hours sailing time south of Port Blair. [Source: AFP, January 4, 2005]
"These animals are crawling over jetties or thrashing in the waters making evacuation very dangerous," said Ram Kishan, a forest guard from Hut Bay, one of the devastated islands of the Andamans archipelago. The two are among 15 personnel of India's Department of Environment and Wildlife who fled with their families after towering waves wiped away their homes on Hut Bay, where thousands are stranded without water or food.
"Earlier, the coast guard came on speedboats and they had to fight back the crocodiles to get people aboard and in my case they had to cradle my wife and children above water to avoid attacks," recounted Kishan. "But now the coast guard is using marine aircraft and the evacuees are relatively safe but the crocs are still crawling around the jetty which is partly submerged," the forest guard added.
Mohammed Zainuddin, another warden who outraced tidal waves with his family of four on a scooter, said despite his training in wildlife handling he was afraid of the snapping jaws while being transported to a coast guard boat. "After all these years in Andamans it was the first time I saw so much aggression in the crocs. Perhaps the tsunamis have wiped out marine life and these creatures are starving or maybe it is some other instinct," he said.
S.R. Mehta, Andaman's chief conservator of wildlife and forests, said he too was surprised with reports that the Andaman crocodiles have turned into man-eaters. "Yes there are a large number of crocodiles in middle south and north Andamans but in the past we have had no report of crocodiles attacking human beings as they just live in the brakish waters of the creeks," Mehta told AFP.
"It is possible they are eating dead bodies in the water but we have no such sightings as yet," Mehta said, commenting on reports the primeval beasts were targetting the wounded on the beaches of ravaged Car Nicobar island. Narayan Lal, another wildlife warden who fled Hut Bay, had another theory. "We too have received reports that the crocodiles have begun to consume bodies and that the beasts seem to have developed a taste for human flesh," Lal said.
Besides the crocodiles, Andamans boasts of deers, wild boars, marine life, a wide variety of birds and oliver riddler turtles. Four Indian environmentalists were reportedly killed while researching the nesting place of the turtles on Campbell Bay island. Tens of hundreds turtles also appear to have perished in the waves, Mehta said.
Relief in India After the Great Tsunami of 2004
India declined offers of tsunami relief aid from other governments and the United Nations and instead offered to help Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Indians responded to this with pride and said it was as an indication that India was no longer a weak Third World country but was an emerging regional power.
The Indian government responded fairly well to the disaster on mainland India. By the second day the military was busy collecting bodies, running medical camps and building shelters. There were large donations from private and corporate sources. In most places survivors were provided with tents to live in and given daily rations of rice, lentils and biscuits. Tanker trucks brought in water. There were some squabbles over food.
In the worst hit areas on the mainland some survivors who lost their homes were put up in relief camps. Within days many returned to the devastated areas to begin rebuilding their lives. With little help from the outside they began rebuilding their homes and fishing boats. Some worried they might be swept away by another tsunami.
The government gave $2,325 to the family of each confirmed tsunami victims. They families of the missing were worried they would not be compensated. The government also paid for the $500 operation for women, who had been sterilized and lost off al their children in the tsunami, to have their sterilizations reversed.
India has plans to construct its own tsunami warning system with some help from Japan. Tourism wasn’t effected much by the tsunami. The areas that were struck were not big tourist areas while the areas that are popular with tourists were not struck.
Tsunami Relief in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The Indian government was criticized for doing too little too late for people on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In some cases, survivor had to wait more than a week for relief supplies to arrive and were forced to survive coconuts, bananas and wild fruit. The Onge tribal group was herded into a stadium. Other were put up in camps at the airport.
Relief teams initially had trouble getting to areas devastated by the tsunami. Ports were damaged. Debris and a changed underwater landscape made approach difficult. Some people lived in areas where there were no roads. In some places the damage was not as bad as was initially thought.
On Nicobar torches were set up along a small air strip so planes could land at night. Several thousand people were evacuated from the island. There were worries about outbreaks of disease. Dead pigs were everywhere. There were shortages of food and water. Malaria was widespread. Many people subsisted on little more than coconut milk. Food and water was airdropped by the military.
Supplies and resources were said to be plentiful but management, planning and transportation were lacking. Some said that India’s response was consistent with it reputation for being bureaucratic and slow. In some cases official upped and left their posts after the tsunami struck. Others waited for days to call for outside help. Foreign NGOs and journalists were prevented from visiting the islands or delayed for weeks.
Psychological Trauma After the 2004 Tsunami in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
A team of counselors and psychologists was sent from Bangalore. At a relief camp, Reuters reported, survivors were by told by a relief worker with a megaphone: “I you can’t sleep at night or are fearful of loud noises that remind you of the tsunami, there is help. Doctors are here to help you. Please come to the medical room.” [Source: Reuters, January 15, 2005]
“Many answered the call. "My son gets scared very easily after the tsunami. He hardly speaks anymore and is always holding my arm," schoolteacher Swaran Rekha told Dr Amir Hamze of National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS). Her six-year-old son, Shubham, looks wide-eyed at the doctor and clings to his mother's arm. Others listen in as they wait their turn to talk to Hamze. [Ibid]
“Shubham and his parents survived by running into the jungle after they saw the giant waves approaching Car Nicobar island, where around 1,200 people are dead or feared dead. They were among the more than 15,000 people killed by the tsunami in India. "You have to make him play with other children. Don't let him be on his own and don't ever mock his fears," Hamze said during the brief 10-minute session, before moving on to another patient. [Ibid]
Reuters reported: “The six-member NIHMANS team from Bangalore, which has visited 10 relief camps, says the scene in School Lines camp is a reflection of the widespread trauma faced by hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of people in the islands, where the tsunami has left nearly 7,500 dead or presumed dead and more than 40,000 homeless. In their eight-day survey of camps, the team noticed symptoms of depression and anxiety among survivors as well as the fear of loud sounds that remind victims of the tsunami. "We fear that if these people do not get long-term treatment, there may be a psychological epidemic which may reduce the quality of life," Dr GS Udaya Kumar, head of the NIMHANS team, told. [Ibid]
"The children are suffering and urgently need help," Kumar said. "A number of children are not socialising anymore and jump at loud sounds like a plane taking off." Adults too are suffering severe mental trauma. "I just keeping remembering the waves pushing me into the jungle," said 22-year-old Carlus Dung Dung, who lost his home and belongings in the tsunami. "I can't sleep."
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2012