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2004 tsunami in Thailand
The first waves from the December 2004 tsunami hit the west coast of Thailand just around 8:30am on December 26th, about a half hour after the Sumatra earthquake and kept coming for another two hours. The waves that did the most damage were slow, steep and closely-packed. This is because the sea around the west coast of Thailand is relatively shallow, which slowed the waves down considerably.

The tsunami struck six provinces in Thailand. The final death toll was 5,395, of which 1,953 were believed to be foreigners. Another 2,929 were listed as missing, An estimated 2,000 people were killed in the fishing village of Ban Nam Khem. The village lost half of its residents.

Thailand was in the middle of the tourist season. There were hundreds of thousands of foreigner in the country. Hotels were filled foreigners. In many places the sea receded a great distance before the largest waves hit. When the water went out many people thought it had something to do with the moon. Bill O’Leary, an employee of the Amanouri resort, knew it was a sign of a tsunami. He is credited with saving scores of lives by warning people to run inland before the waves arrived. But others were killed because they had no clue what was happening. The New York Times reported: “Bodies littered the once crowded beach resorts. Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree as if crucified.”

Many coral reefs were destroyed by the tsunami. The great waves snapped hundreds of sea fans. Debris from the tsunami littered natural areas. On green turtle was washed almost a mile inland and deposited in a pond north of Phuket. Some people in boats rescued survivors pulled out to sea. Others kept their distance.

Sea Turtles and the December 2004 Tsunami in Thailand

AP reported: “Endangered sea turtles were also casualties of the tsunami, with the monster waves possibly hastening their extinction, a marine expert said Saturday. At least 24 turtles swept up by the waves have been found on the shores of Phuket island, some dead, others with cuts, scrapes and broken shells. But the titanic wave also swept away about two dozen endangered olive ridley turtles that were part of a breeding program which had been increasing their numbers. "In the worse-case scenario, the effect of the tsunami could make some species of sea turtles extinct," said Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong, a marine biologist at Phuket Marine Biological Center, said.[Source: Rungrawee C. Pinyorat, Associated Press, January 10, 2005]

“When the wall of water swept ashore, the immediate focus was on saving human lives, and marine center workers pitched in. Now they are finding the damage to the sea turtle was severe, perhaps irreparable. Since sea turtles move slowly, breathe through their lungs and need to surface regularly for oxygen, they were particularly susceptible to the tsunami. Some 20 out of 30 breeding olive ridley turtles that were raised in a cement pool near the sea were swept away. Their fate is unknown. It is unclear if they can survive in the sea.

“The green, hawksbill, olive ridley and leatherback turtles, which are found in tropical waters, live 18 feet from shore, making them vulnerable to waves that dumped dolphins and other sea creatures more than a half-mile inland. The olive ridley and leatherback are listed as threatened or endangered. In the tsunami-affected region, the olive ridley breed only on the Andaman Sea coast and nearly became extinct in Thailand, because their eggs were smuggled for food. Their numbers fell from 5,000 nests 50 years ago to fewer than 200 today.

The breeding program had allowed the olive ridley with its broad heart-shaped shell to start a comeback, but it has now been dealt a serious blow. "The environment has changed, with debris and garbage strewn on the seashore and sediment in the sea," Kongkiat said. "These are not good conditions for turtles to lay eggs."

Coral and the December 2004 Tsunami in Thailand

Describing the findings of a two-week survey of coral reefs the Thailand coast around Phuket, Phi Phi and the Surin Island three and a half months after the December 2004 tsunami, Greg Stone of the New England Aquarium wrote in National Geographic: “After more than 500 dives at 56 sites, we found plenty of damage but even more reason for optimism. In the open ocean the tsunami's fast-moving waves were only a few feet high and posed little hazard to deepwater reefs. But in the shallows they slowed, piled up, and unleashed thousands of tons of force. Large bays, which can intensify the waves, were hit especially hard, with table corals big enough for a family dinner scattered and broken, and massive coral heads toppled and smothered in silt. [Source: Geographica, December 2005]

“Development on shore often worsened the damage by providing an ample supply of debris, including refrigerators, cars, and roofing, which battered the reefs as it was swept out to sea. And near the earthquake's epicenter off Indonesia — far from our survey — the seafloor was heaved up by an estimated 16 feet (4 meters), lifting some coral clear out of the water.

“Overall, though, our survey of the Andaman Sea coast and islands of southern Thailand revealed very light damage or none at all at 36 percent of the study sites and moderate damage at another 50 percent. Only 14 percent had severe damage. Except for localized kills, reef fish also seemed to have fared well. "The tsunami shook up their world like mad for a few minutes, but there are still plenty of fish around," concluded fish expert Gerry Allen of the Western Australian Museum.

“Much of the damage will heal quickly, re-creating vibrant habitats. Broken and toppled coral can continue to grow. Even dead reefs can recover, providing they haven't been buried, as coral larvae drift in and recolonize them. We also saw efforts to speed the recovery. In the Similan Islands the tsunami dislodged hundreds of delicate, decades-old sea fans, dooming them to drift around and eventually die. We watched divers in a project led by the Phuket Marine Biological Center swimming in pairs, holding six-foot (two-meter) sea fans between them like chandeliers and reattaching them to rocks using masonry nails and cement.

“The project is a rare case of humans affecting reefs for the better. Throughout our survey we saw the opposite — the effects of overfishing, development, and global warming, which can raise water temperatures and cause fatal coral bleaching. "For reefs, in the fullness of time, this tsunami was just another bad day," says Australian coral expert Charlie Veron. But human impacts are unrelenting, and reefs may not be able to shrug them off so easily.

After the December 2004 Tsunami in Thailand

A month or so after the tsunami, the Thai Cabinet approved a $1.79 billion relief bill for victims of the tsunami. Most of the money was in the form of soft loans to help businesses recover. Some of the money was in the form of grants to people who lost relatives and property in the disaster.

About 70 percent of damaged areas in the three worst hit provinces were rebuilt three months after the tsunami. The Thai government turned down a $20 million aid offer from Japan, saying he Japanese government should offer the money to recipients countries more in need.

Divers and volunteers put in long hours collecting debris from the sea floor. Elephants were put to work cleaning up debris. Divers cemented sea fans in place near the Simlian islands. It was hoped they would survive. Otherwise it would takes decades for new ones to grow back. Members of the Thai navy rescued the disoriented green turtle fond inland in a pond. Utility workers put up poles and power lines to restore electricity to tsunami-hit areas.

About 3,000 people reported missing were never found and many bodies were nver identified. AP and Reuters reported: “Southern Thailand’s status as a world-class tourist destination meant that victims of the disaster could come from literally anywhere around the globe. And due to the heat and the immersion of many bodies in water, the thousands of corpses are decomposing quickly, losing their identifying features. Specialists, such as dictors, dentist and police officers, always have a chance to quickly find a unique, identifying feature or mark, But their painstaking efforts could take months — or even come up blank.”

Warnings, Scams. Sexual Predators and the December 2004 Tsunami

Emergency meetings were held after the earthquakes at the offices of the Thai Meteorological department about issuing a tsunami warning. According to the Thai newspaper the Nation a “very important factor” in the decision not to issue a warning was a fear that the tourism industry and the department itself would suffer if a tsunami did not occur. Before the disaster warning to set up a warning system and preparation plan were ignored and even mocked for raising unnecessary alarm.

New warning systems installed after the 2004 tsunami included a system to send alerts to mobile phones as well as television and radio stations and watchtower equipped with sirens. Evacuation drills were held in Phuket in May 2005. In December 2006, Thailand positioned the first of 22 U.S.-made tsunami-detection buoys in the Indian Ocean. It was part of a regional warning system against tsunamis caused by earthquakes. The satellite-linked, deep-sea buoy was positioned 1,000 kilometers offshore between Thailand and Sri Lanka. It gives Thailand an hour warning if an earthquake or tsunami is detected near it.

There were many reports of scams, A provincial official in Phuket was arrested and charged for stealing $50,000 of government money earmarked to help victims of the tsunami. A well-connected tycoon grabbed up valuable beachfront property occupied by 50 families for a decade, They families protested but they didn’t have legally-documented land rights. Some scam projects enlisted foreign volunteers to help in the relief efforts. After the arrived they were taken to remote villages, robbed of their money and their passports and abandoned.

Sexual predators reportedly hunted for tsunami orphans with plans for using them in the child sex industry. One 15-year-old girl staying at a battered women’s shelter in Phuket told the Times of London, “men offered to put me in a nice house and buy me nice clothes. I just ran.”

Some people were reportedly on the lookout for babies and small children that they could sell to adoption agencies. There were many stories of children disappearing. It is believed that most of these ended up with relatives but there is good chance that some could ended up in the hands of some unsavory characters.

There were reports of children being bought for as little as $7.50 and being put to work in sex clubs, as beggars and as forced laborers. There were also reports of children being sold to Western couples wanting an adopted child. In many cases documentation linking a particular child to their parents had been destroyed.

Thai Economy, Tourism, and the Great Tsunami of 2004

By some estimated Thailand lost more than $1 billion in tourism revenues because of the tsunami. Some estimated that Phuket alone lost that much. A quarter of the 100,000 tourism workers in Phuket lost their jobs. People in the tourism business in Phuket complained the media coverage made Phuket seem like a disaster zone, which was not the case. Owners of Lahuna Phuket, which operates five properties, including the exclusive Banyan Tree Resort, said only 44 of its 1,1000 rooms were damaged. Hotels and other businesses went out of their way to assure tourists that operations were close to normal despite everything and that their business was wanted and appreciated.

The disaster came on the heels of the bird flu outbreak and SARs scare. The Thai tourism minster said afterward: “We are back in business — most of our tourist resorts are operational. Only a few have been closed. The effect of the tsunami on the economy was expected to be less than that of SARS and bird flu. To help lure tourists back what would have otherwise been one of the peak season airlines lowered their fares and offered special package deals.

Khao Lak, just north of Phuket, saw some of the worst damage, with almost all of the beach's 30 hotels damaged. In Krabi province, the more casual Phi Phi Island was hit hardest, with most of its 15 hotels closed. Phuket fared better, tourism officials said, with 10 percent of the beaches affected. Tourists heading to other Thai locations eased the impact on Thailand as a whole, Buddhani said. While tourism was down international flights to Phuket were suspended or reduced by Hong Kong Dragon Airlines, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, Orient Thai Airlines, SilkAir, Air Asia and Thai Airways.

Reporting from Phuket, James Brooke wrote in the New York Times, “Barraged with scenes of death, many tourists may worry about being seen as voyeurs, thinking perhaps that Thais would like to grieve in solitude. But more than half the region's hotel rooms are intact, and, the universal message to tourists is: Please come back. Thais, it seems, would prefer to grieve employed, rather than grieve unemployed. A similar sentiment was voiced by two foreigners working as volunteers at the largest morgue for foreign tsunami victims. "You see all this destruction, then you see all the resorts opening up," said Nate Donaldson, a 30-year-old Illinois native who left his job teaching in northern Thailand to work in the temple morgue. "At first you think, that is really tactless, really tasteless. But that is how they make their money here." [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005]

“An estimated 20,000 people have lost their jobs. Hotel maids now make ends meet by scavenging scrap metal. Fishermen repair nets because fish consumption has fallen sharply out of fears that fish feed on bodies. With Phuket earning $2 billion a year in tourism revenue, the island may be losing $100 million a month. So many Thais see the arrival of tourists as an act of solidarity. "We want everything to come back as normal," said Yotin Tiemchan, an optometrist's assistant. "The government should assure foreigners that this is a safe place."

“Thanom Duangsida, a 21-year-old law student who had come from Bangkok to cook for rescue workers, voiced a similar view as he stood outside the ruins of La Flora hotel on Bang Niang Beach at Khao Lak. "Some people think that because it's a disaster zone, they shouldn't come here." he said. "But I am a Thai person, and I want the foreigners to come because its good for my country."

On Patong Beach, where 4,000 sunbathers blanketed the beach one year ago, there were only 100 or so tourists on a recent morning. "I was interested in what happened here," Vladimir Kvasha, a 31-year-old Moscow furniture designer, said, pausing from strolling shirtless down the beach. "I was in the Balkan countries right after the war. I like to see things when they are getting better." Curious to see how the island was faring, he had bucked the outward tourist tide, coming here for a look. Many tourism professionals interviewed in Phuket predicted that businesses would move aggressively to rebuild. "The international players are all saying they are going to build again," said Mark Heather, general manager for La Flora. "They are saying they are going to be ready for the next season."

Tourism and Ghosts in Thailand After the Great Tsunami of 2004

Reuters reported: “Tourism chiefs in tsunami-hit parts of southern Thailand are urging the media to stop writing stories about ghosts because they say it is scaring away holidaymakers. "It's inappropriate for media operators such as Thai television to be presenting this," Phattanaphong Ekwanich, president of the Phuket Tourism Business Association, was quoted as saying in the Nation newspaper."It's not amusing and also has a serious impact on the tourist industry, affecting Asian people in particular as many of them believe in spirits," he said. [Source: Reuters, January 27, 2005]

Domestic and foreign media have reported dozens of ghost sightings in tsunami-affected areas as deeply superstitious, Buddhist Thais come to terms with the magnitude of the Dec. 26 disaster, which killed more than 5,300 people in Thailand, many of them foreign tourists. The encounters have ranged from backpackers heard laughing and shouting on deserted beaches to holidaymakers hailing a cab to the airport, only to disappear mysteriously along the way. Phattanaphong said the sightings could only be figments of the imagination because the correct religious rites had been performed to allow troubled spirits to move on to a peaceful resting place.

Describing the impact of the disaster on tourism, Lisa Kalis and James Brooke wrote in the New York Times, “Damage mainly was limited to three districts on Thailand's southwestern coast. Sethaphan Buddhani, a director for the Thailand Tourism Authority in New York, said hotel damage totaled $300 million in the area of Phang-Nga, $400 million in Phuket and $700 million in Krabi. He estimated that reconstruction would be mostly complete within six months, although reconstruction will take a year at two other destinations, Phi Phi Island in Krabi and Khao Lak beach in Phang-Nga. [Source: Lisa Kalis and James Brooke, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005]

December 2004 Tsunami in Malaysia

Malaysia was largely spared from the December 2004 tsunami in part because the earthquake that generated the tsunami was on the west side of Sumatra and Malaysia lies on the east side of Sumatra, largely protected from the tsunami by Sumatra itself. Still 68 people died in Malaysia, with Penang Island off the northeast coast being one of the worst hit places.

Reporting from Penang, Wong Chun Wai wrote in The Star: Shortly after noon, a tremor hit Penang, sending workers of Komtar running out of their offices in panic. The 30-second tremor was caused by an earthquake in West Sumatra. It shook furniture and rattled the window panes of Komtar, which was then still under construction. It had reached the 60th storey, with five more storeys to go before it was completed. For many Penangites, who work in high-rise buildings, the “dizzy spell” after each tremor, has always been a laughing matter. Perhaps, even a good time-off from their mundane office work at each evacuation. [Source: Wong Chun Wai, The Star (Malaysia), December 28, 2004]

“But on Sunday, it was not just another tremor but a fatal disaster. Penangites and holiday makers, who were at the coastal areas, saw a killer tidal wave. For many, they also learnt a new word — tsunami. Tsunami (pronounced “soo nahm’ee) is a Japanese word which means harbour wave. A former schoolmate, Chun Wah, who stayed near Batu Ferringhi, where the beach hotels are located, had messaged me early on Sunday alerting me of what was taking place on the island. Providing detailed accounts of the tidal waves, he said he heard wailing sirens from speeding ambulances. They were bad signs. By the end of the day, 38 were reported dead. In the confusion that reigned, there were conflicting figures, but the authorities, unprepared for the disaster, did a good job dealing with the disaster at hand.

“So close is Penang island to Aceh, there used to be an Acehnese settlement on the island and a road, aptly called Lebuh Acheh, which is just a short distance away from the pier, where Indonesian traders used to land... Datuk Seri Kamal Hashim, the regional director of The Star, said he was at his beach apartment with his family at the time of the disaster. Just shortly before the waves came crushing to the shore, he had ordered his grandchildren to return to the apartment. “It was too hot and I told them to have lunch first. It was a lucky thing because I then heard the thundering sound of the waves. From my balcony, we watched clearly the waves which came literally to attack the beach.”We saw panicking picnickers running away while some just stood, dumbfounded, looking at the incoming waves. Some was seen diving into the water desperately searching for their loved ones who were missing,” he said.

“As I drove around the disaster-hit areas of Gurney Drive, Batu Ferringhi, Teluk Bahang and Tanjung Tokong, it was almost impossible to believe that a huge tidal wave had caused undue damage to these areas. The debris in these areas had been cleared and the streets cleaned up quickly. One unkind joke circulating on the island is that nature had decided to clean up the state, which had suffered some bad press for the sad state of affairs.

“Near Chulia Street, there was no shortage of Penangites who wanted to share their experiences — or the tales they had heard — with me. One told me that the tidal waves were as “high as a coconut tree”. Gesturing excitedly as he narrated his experiences to me, the municipal council worker, who had supposedly gone fishing at the time of the incident, then took a look at my notes and told me to make a correction. “Make it two coconut trees high,” he said with a straight face.

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.

Last updated November 2012

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