The December 2004 tsunami generated the largest relief effort since World War II and was larger than even that in terms of a concentrated effort over a large area in a relatively short period with little preparation time. As of December 2005 more than $13.6 billion had been pledged by governments, aid agencies and private donors, according to the United Nations, making it the most generously funded humanitarian effort in history. What was perhaps even better news was that much more of the money that was pledged was paid in a timely fashion which was not the case after other major disasters such as Hurricane Mitch and the Bam earthquake in Iran.

The money donated by private individuals was on a scale never before seen. So much money was pledged that a month after the disaster the Red Cross said that it had collected enough money and was winding down its fund-raising effort. Medicins sans Frontiers also said that it had received enough. It suggested offering money for other places like the Congo and Sudan.

More than100 United Nations agencies and humanitarian groups provided assistance. Major groups involved in the relief effort included the Red Cross, OXFAM, CARE, UNICEF and the WHO. The United Nations World Food Program fed 1.75 million people. As of late March 2004, it moved 50,000 tons of food to stricken areas using helicopters, planes, cargo ships, landing crafts and trucks. Smaller groups included medical teams from Pakistan and China, search and rescue teams with dogs from the UAE, and engineers from Spain and New Zealand. Even Afghanistan sent a team and North Kore gave some money.

The United States pledged $1 billion in relief aid to tsunami-hit countries. At first the Bush administration pledged only $35 million and was widely criticized for being tight. A few days later it upped the figure to $315 million. Australia, whose population is one twentieth that of the United States, donated $771 million in grants and loans over five years. Germany donated $674 million; Japan, $550 million; and Norway, $182 million. Some of the rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were also criticized for not giving more. Initially, Saudi Arabia had pledged only $30 million and Kuwait. $10 million. Around the same it was revealed that Kuwait was running a $10 billion government surplus. Within weeks after the disaster governments pledged over $2 billion. Japan pledged the most ($500 million) and gave almost all of it immediately.

Debt repayments for some affected countries were suspended until the end of 2005, with deferred amounts paid over five years. The Asian Development Bank promised $675 million in assistance to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The areas hit by the disaster had limited insurance and huge debts. The idea of debt relief was a controversial one, namely because the South Asian countries received it while African countries hit by equally devastating disasters didn’t.

Relief Effort and the Great Tsunami of 2004

Relief for the December 2004 tsunami came in two stages: 1) the emergency response; and 2) reconstruction and rehabilitation. Early emergency relief efforts included food drops of instant noodles, bags of rice, bottled water, medicines and “basic medical kits.” Water purification centers were set up. The water was purified and loaded onto to trucks and taken to villages where wells were contaminated. Wells that had been contaminated with salt water and debris were pumped out and chlorinated. Obviously more could have been done and people died that should have been saved but the extent of the disaster was vast. Because so many roads were out, helicopters were essential in getting basic supplies to where they were needed most.

There was a lot of confusion and lack of centralization as groups with their own agendas arrived at the sites of destruction. Micheal Dobbs wrote in the Washington Post: “An army of would-be philanthropists descended on...the tsunami-affected countries. There, of course, were the big relief agencies like CARE and Doctors Without Borders...And there were private individuals...who simply wanted to help...Some of the assistance has been extremely effective. Some of it has been next to useless. And some of it is spawning new conflicts and rivalries, upsetting the local power structure in ways that were often incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Foreigners who thought they were helping out were instead reviled by local people because they took work away from them. Replacing lost fishing boats proved to be no simple matter. People that never boats to begin with, for example, filed claims. Others that lost their boats filed claims with a number of different agencies. Rich people intimated the poor.

Some of the food aid came in the form of things that local people didn’t like. Some people who eat mostly rice and noodles were given large bags of soy flour and were unable to figure out what to do with it. There were also problems with getting help to where it was needed most. In some places there were no aid organizations. In other places there were so many they squabbled over who would perform the next operation. Other problems included duplication and simply finding a way to get goods to where they were needed. In some cases relief groups promised space on helicopters or planes into the disaster areas were dumped to make room for visits by VIPs.

United States and the Relief Effort and the Great Tsunami of 2004

Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker: “There were familiar elements in the responses of the Bush Administration. Two days after the disaster, a White House spokesman, asked why President Bush himself had so far remained silent, explained, “He didn’t want to make a symbolic statement about “we feel your pain.” On the third day, the President finally voiced his condolences in person, and two days later the government’s emergency-aid allotment, initially pegged at fifteen million dollars, was raised to three hundred and fifty million, where it remains. On the eighth day, even as Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Thailand, was saying that enough money was at hand, Bush, now back at the White House, appeared side by side with his father, George H. W. Bush (whom he had never before granted such a public role), and his father’s successor, Bill Clinton (the object of his spokesman’s snideness), to announce that he was appointing them to lead a private fund-raising drive in the United States. [Source: Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker, January 17, 2005]

“We’re a very generous, kindhearted nation,” the President said on December 29th. And so we are. But it is unseemly to boast about it at such a moment. It would be unseemly even if it were not the case that Australia, Germany, and Japan have been considerably more generous in absolute terms and perhaps a dozen other countries have been more so in per-capita terms. “We’re showing the compassion of our nation in the swift response,” Bush said on January 3rd. “But the greatest source of America’s generosity is not our government — it’s the good heart of the American people.” That is true, too; but it is also true, or should be, that in a democracy a government’s generosity is an expression of a people’s heart, not something separate from it. There is reason to worry that the Administration regards private relief efforts as a partial replacement for, rather than as a supplement to, the efforts of the United States government; and reason to worry, too, that the funds for tsunami relief will come at the expense of victims of disasters yet to occur. According to the Times, the Administration plans to use money from the disaster-and-famine-assistance program of the United States Agency for International Development, whose budget for this year is $384.9 million, and consulted with “senior Republican lawmakers” to try “to cover the costs of this disaster without undermining Mr. Bush’s other priorities,” such as “making his tax cuts permanent.”

“A few influential Republicans, however, are beginning to say that America should help the victims of the tsunami without beggaring other assistance programs, and if their view prevails then our aid will indeed be, as the Administration insists, an expression of “American values.” But these are American values that, at least for the moment, are also manifestly German values and Japanese values and Norwegian and Swedish and Spanish and British values and Sri Lankan and Indian values — values that are, like the victims of the tsunami, simply human.

Tsunami Relief Effort, Celebrities and Norwegian School Kids

“In Norway, children sold their Christmas presents to raise money, AP reported: “French pupils and Danish inmates took up collections, and cell phone users are giving via text message. Asia's tsunami disaster has sparked an extraordinary wave of generosity from Greenland to Greece, from corner bakers donating proceeds to sports clubs selling T-shirts to Dutch children going door-to-door.

Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush headed United States fund-raising efforts for tsunami relief. Clinton was named as a United Nations envoy for environmental relief. The two former presidents visited disaster sites in Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives and Aceh. One of their main goals was to head off donor fatigue and keep the money flowing in.

A concert in Malaysia with Lauryn Hill, the Backstreet Boys, Black Eyed Peas, Boys II Men and Hong Kong’s Nicholas Tse and Yumiko Cheng, Indonesia’s Ruth Sahanaya and Malaysia’s Sheila Majd drew 15,000 people and took in $2.6 million. A concert at a stadium in Cardiff, Wales with Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Ozzy Osborne, Elton John, the Manic Street Preachers, Keane and Charlotte Church drew 60,000 people. It was dubbed the largest charity show since the Live Aid show in 1985.

Hollywood stars and pop singers that participated in the Tsunami Aid Telethon included Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Willis, Madonna, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Meg Ryan, Tim Robbins, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Catherine Zeta Jones, Matt Damon and Halle Berry. Sanda Bullock donated $1 million to the American Red Cross for tsunami relief. DeCaprio donated large amounts of money but didn’t disclose exactly how much. Race car driver Michael Schumacher donated $19 million. U.S. President George Bush donated $10,000.

Relief Effort Scams and Corruption

There were a number of scams especially on the Internet that cheated potential donors out of their money. People on the streets of the United States and Europe collected money for tsunami relief and then kept the money for themselves. Donations were taken over the Internet for relief projects that did not exist. People who were scammed sent money to offshore accounts in places like Cyprus. Some of the schemes were just plain mean. One British man logged on to a site for relatives looking for information on their loved ones and sent messages that everyone they were looking for was dead.

There were reports of money being siphoned off by corrupt government officials that was intended for relief. Buddhist, Muslim and even some Christian leaders were suspicious of evangelical groups that mixed proselytizing with humanitarian aid. Some Muslim charity groups were also quite forthcoming about their radical Islamic views.

Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the New York Times, With all the money and aid pouring into the region after the Dec. 26 tsunami, there is a more urgent need to address corruption as there are widespread fears that much of this largesse, amounting to more than $7 billion in public and private pledges, will find its way into the pockets of unscrupulous people. Many are wondering if all this political resolve to fight corruption is real or merely rhetorical. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, New York Times, January 27, 2005]

“Witness the sordid tales from hard-hit areas in Aceh of extortion and theft by security officials, or of the threat to land owners in devastated Phuket, where big developers are said to be counting on the chaos to push out local people so they can acquire more prime beachfront. One of the first fears Indonesian legislators expressed after the tsunami was that money meant for rehabilitation would end up in the wrong hands. Some urged that along with emergency medical aid, the government should also send auditors. Ironically, the incumbent governor of Aceh, Abdullah Puteh, was confronted with corruption charges on the day of the tsunami.

“The story is not so very different in Thailand. "In tsunami land, the bad guys have already put up signs saying: 'Building Prohibited,'" reports Joe Maier, an American Catholic priest who has spent the past 30 years protecting slum-dwellers from land-grabbers in Bangkok. On his arrival in Phuket, he said the loudest complaints he heard were from locals fearing they would be prevented from rebuilding their homes.

Relief Effort Religion and Proselytizing

Michael Casey of Associated Press wrote: “Muslim radicals are handing out Qurans with the bags of rice and sugar they distribute to tsunami victims. Christian aid groups have also rushed in, quietly promising salvation in this predominantly Islamic region but fearful their presence could spark sectarian violence. Across the Indian Ocean basin, dozens of faith-based groups have joined relief efforts in the wake of the December tsunami.The groups include everyone from al-Qaida-linked militants to evangelical Christians, and their presence is most profound in Indonesia, where the needs are greatest and the cash-strapped government has thrown open the doors to foreign aid groups. [Source: Michael Casey, Associated Press, January 13, 2005

“A member of the Justice and Welfare Party load relief good for refugees in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Muslims radicals are handing out Qurans with the bags of rice and sugar while the moderates are leading Islamic studies sessions in refugee camps. The heavy Muslim influence in Aceh province — one of the few Indonesian regions that has instituted Islamic law — has defined how the groups operate. While Muslims are bragging about their religious credentials, Christian groups are mostly invisible and instruct workers not to display their church names or wear crosses.

"We prefer to address the physical needs first," said William Suhanda, an Indonesian whose Christian group "Light of Love For Aceh" is helping distribute food in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, and wants to bring 50 children to a Christian orphanage in Jakarta, the national capital. "We also want to expose them to Christian values," he said. "It is so they can see the other side, that we're about the love of Christ. But this is not the place to carry a Bible."

“But evangelists like Wisconsin native Mark Kosinski say it's impossible to separate relief activities from sharing the Gospel. He acknowledged he was warned to tone down his message but says he has "a job to do." "These people need food but they also need Jesus," said Kosinski, who arrived this week from Malaysia. "God is trying to awaken people and help them realize that salvation is in Christ." One Virginia-based ministry considered airlifting 300 orphans waiting at the Banda Aceh and Medan airports to a Christian children's home in Jakarta. WorldHelp started raising funds for the operation until it learned that the government banned non-Muslims from adopting Acehnese orphans.

Great Tsunami of 2004 and the Economy

Immediately after the disaster unemployment soared from 7 percent to 33 percent in Aceh Province and 9 percent to 20 percent in affected areas of Sri Lanka. But once things settled down a bit, the disaster helped create job, mainly through construction needed for rebuilding. Currency rates and stock prices were not affected that much by the tsunami. Financial experts believed that what ever losses would be sustained by loss of tourism would be offset by growth from foreign aid and rebuilding.

Fishing had traditionally been the most important industry and way to make a living in areas struck by the tsunami. The fishing industry was devastating by the tsunami. Many fishermen lost their boats. Demand for fish dried up out of fear that fish harvested from tsunami-hit areas had fed on the flesh of human tsunami victims that had been washed out to sea. It took some times to rebuild boats.

Fish farms, a source of income for 10 percent of the population in tsunami-affected areas and a source of prawns, milkfish and other seafood, were destroyed. Agricultural land and water supplies near the shore were contaminated by salt water.

Among those who made out well after the tsunami were scrap dealers, who took in scavenged metal and plastic and resold it; landlords who demanded and got inflated rents from journalists and relief workers; and boat owners. Insurance companies paid out less for the tsunami than they usually do for a large U.S. hurricane.

The overall effect on the economies was minimal. The hardest hit areas were poor and contributed relatively small proportions to the overall economy. In many cases the economy was boosted by the flow of donation money and jobs created by reconstruction. Often, those that were affected the worst were those living just above the poverty line. In some cases the disaster put them below it. The very poor had so little to begin with they didn’t have much to lose.

One year after the disaster AP reported: “Local economies are starting to recover, with more than half the people who lost jobs across the region now back at work, Oxfam said. Thousands of hectares ruined by saltwater and mud have been desalinated and cleared, and many farmers already had successful harvests...Thanks in part to the massive response of the international community, 60 percent of the people who lost their jobs are earning a living again and most of the tens of thousand of destroyed fishing boats have been replaced.”

Great Tsunami of 2004 and Tourism

Countries that rely on tourism were hurt the most by the tsunami, which destroyed a large amount of tourism property and infrastructure and scared off many people. The tourism industry was hurt but tourism officials in the countries affected by the tsunami complained that foreign governments misrepresented the extent of the damage. To attract customers, hotels offered special deals and airlines lowered their fares.

Describing the impact of the disaster on tourism, Lisa Kalis and James Brooke wrote in the New York Times, The impact on tourism may be limited. In the main tourist destinations affected - the beach resorts of Thailand and Sri Lanka and all of the Maldives islands - the majority of hotels are ready for business. Of those hotels that were damaged, many should reopen within months. When it comes to tourism, the region has faced bigger challenges. Rakesh Shankar, an economist specializing in Asia with the research group, said the tsunami's impact would be far less than the SARS outbreak, which kept tourists away from Asia for two years. "The question is: Are countries going to have the infrastructure to deal with it?" Shankar said. He expected that tourism mostly would be back to normal by the summer in Thailand and within a year in Sri Lanka. However, in the Maldives, he said full recovery could take two or three years. [Source: Lisa Kalis and James Brooke, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005]

Rebuilding After Great Tsunami of 2004

Tasks that needed to be done after the disaster included building homes for the homeless; clearing away rubble; repairing roads or bridges; decontaminating wells; repairing and building irrigation systems; getting hospitals and clinics going; fixing power lines; doing something about salt water damage to fields; repairing fishing boats; getting business going again. Often the first things that had to be done were collecting the dead bodies and the removing mountains of rubble and pumping out water.

Much of the rebuilding was done by affected people on their own with help from relatives. The early stages of rebuilding included clearing mud out of salvageable homes, and claiming couches, computers and book cases that could be still used. After that was done work could begin on rebuilding homes or clearing away debris.

Rebuilding was held up by problems of figuring out who owned the land that reconstruction was supposed to take place on. In many cases records that could help determine who owned what was swept or badly damaged by the tsunami. There was also the problem of what to do about claims for parcel of land that belonged to dead victims.

Planners and environmentalist called for the creation of green walls of trees and mangroves to protect the coast and those lose who lived behind coastal areas from future tsunamis. An effort was to limit the number of shrimp farms, resorts and industrial developments along vulnerable coastal areas both to prevent damage to the environment and reduce conditions that could lead to great loss of life in the event of another tsunami.

A year after the disaster nearly 1.5 million people were still living in tents, barracks and other types of temporary housing and the challenge, aid organizations said, was getting them into permanent housing. At that juncture only 20 percent of thise who lost their homes were settled in permanent hosuing. Oxfam said the effort was being held up land rights issue, a shortage of construction materials, lack of expertise in rebuilding under those circumstances, government indecision, the sheer scale of the disaster and demands by victims and communities. "The reality is that rebuilding at speed involves a difficult balancing act: people want houses quickly but they also want to be consulted and the houses to be of top quality," said Oxfam's director Jeremy Hobbs.

One Year After the December 2004 Tsunami

After visiting Aceh and Sri Lanka about one year after the disaster, Bill Clinton wrote in the New York Times: he survivors' spirited determination to rebuild their lives despite the unimaginable losses they have endured and the often desperate conditions in which they live. I was also encouraged by the many significant accomplishments over the last 12 months: Epidemics were prevented; many children are back in school; tens of thousands of survivors are employed and earning money once again; ongoing food assistance is being delivered; a common system of financial tracking is available online; and a regional tsunami warning system is expected to be in place next summer. [Source: New York Times, December 24, 2005]

“There is still a lot left to do. In Aceh and neighboring Nias alone, over 100,000 people still live in unacceptable conditions and with minimal access to job opportunities. The tsunami presents the international community with a critical challenge: Will we stay the course in the recovery process even after the world's attention has turned to other crises? What will happen in the days after the anniversary? And in the weeks and months ahead? This effort will take years, and we must see it through. Now more than ever, I am convinced that recovery must be guided by a commitment to "build back better": better housing, schools and health care centers, safer communities and stronger economies. Recovery policies must incorporate basic principles of good governance, such as consultation with local communities on reconstruction plans and objectives, and transparency and accountability.

The Economist reported: By most accounts, the emergency-relief effort in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami was a notable success. Unlike in previous disasters of this magnitude, almost no one died from outbreaks of disease, lack of clean water or starvation in the wake of the catastrophe, even in remote islands off India and Indonesia. In some fields, the recovery has proceeded very quickly: most children in tsunami-affected areas are back in school, although not necessarily in a proper building. In Indonesia, for example, the United Nations Children's Fund has set up temporary schools for over 500,000 children. [Source: The Economist, December 24, 2005]

“The transition from emergency relief to reconstruction has gone less smoothly. In both Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the authorities set up special agencies to oversee rehabilitation. That made sense, since the mammoth task would have overwhelmed existing government agencies, especially because the waves had swept away many of their staff and offices. But creating a parallel bureaucracy takes time, and is bound to provoke rivalry with the existing one. Indonesia's Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR) was not created until April, and was not fully operational for several months after that.

“Money, in theory, should not have been a problem. The outpouring of sympathy after the tsunami resulted in pledges of over $13 billion in international aid of one sort or another. Donations from private individuals and companies alone came to more than $5 billion. Some charities, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, actually started refusing donations for tsunami victims, saying they already had as much money as they could use.

“In any reconstruction effort, aid workers point out, there is always a trade-off between quality and speed. Given the amount of money they had to spend, and the amount of attention their work was receiving from the media, many agencies decided to make model projects out of their tsunami relief work. But some delays are the result of simple ineptitude rather than complex planning. During the initial airlift, several charities flew in unsolicited, unwanted donations of winter clothing, which added to congestion at airports. More recently, aid agencies have bombarded fishermen with offers of new boats, but no one has paid to rebuild the factories that used to supply the ice to preserve their catch. No one seems to have spent much time thinking about interim measures. It was only recently that the BRR began a real push to get temporary shelters built to replace tent camps during the long wait for permanent housing.

“Nor is the reconstruction effort evenly spread. In Thailand, the richer and relatively unscathed province of Phuket has received more aid than Phangnga, the province which includes Khao Lak. Groups with little political clout, such as illegal Burmese immigrants in Thailand, or Sri Lanka's Muslim minority, have got less than their fair share of assistance. By the same token, the World Bank complains that fashionable causes, like health and education, have won more attention than equally worthy but less glamorous work, such as dredging swamped ports. Mr Cox of the UNDP says that of the $354 million earmarked for road-building in Aceh, only $8 million has actually been disbursed. No wonder, then, that of 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) of road rendered impassable, only 354 kilometers have been restored.

“By far the biggest obstacle to the reconstruction effort, however, is the sheer scale of the devastation. Long swathes of coastline in Aceh rose or subsided during the earthquake that prompted the tsunami, leaving farmland submerged and coral reefs above water. Fields are strewn with boulders or sodden with salt water. Roads and ports have been washed away, making it hard to bring in heavy equipment or supplies. The temporary roads the Indonesian army has built are already eroding in the monsoon rains.

“Skilled labour and building materials are also in short supply. There are simply not enough workmen, machines and supplies in Aceh to build more than 5,000 houses a month. Aid agencies, naturally, want to use timber from legal sources. But neither Sri Lanka nor Indonesia produces enough locally, so it has to be imported from Australia and New Zealand. Even where land has been cleared and supplies are available, reconstruction often cannot begin straight away. Land disputes are legion, since the tsunami destroyed many boundary markers and deeds, if they existed in the first place. The huge number of deaths has generated plenty of inheritance disputes. Unscrupulous property developers are said to have seized valuable coastal land in Sri Lanka and Thailand to build new resorts. Suitable land will have to be found for some 30,000 families in Aceh who will have to relocate permanently, because their former property is no longer habitable.

“Still, the World Bank and the BRR, in a recent report on the first year of reconstruction in Indonesia, argue that work has actually proceeded quickly compared to past disasters. It took seven years for a city as rich as Kobe in Japan to recover in terms of population, income and industrial activity after its earthquake in 1995, the report notes.

Two Years After the December 2004 Tsunami

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: In Aceh “hundreds of thousands of people still have no permanent homes or jobs, and it seems that many will live out their lives as refugees of the tsunami. In India, the British aid group Oxfam estimates that 70 percent of affected people still live in temporary shelters. In Sri Lanka the revival of a civil war has made life even more precarious for survivors. The beaches of Phuket in southern Thailand seem to be an exception, with life and tourism thriving again, though the scars of trauma remain. The last 451 unidentified bodies, of more than 5,000 who died, are being buried and their DNA is being kept on file. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, December 26, 2006]

“Many of the problems of reconstruction are playing out here in Aceh, where 170,000 people died and more than half a million lost their homes. Hundreds of small earthquakes, as well as floods and landslides, have added to the misery since then. In recent days at least 70 people have been killed in the area by flash floods. “We are constantly overwhelmed by the massive task confronting us,” said the director of the Indonesian government’s reconstruction agency, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, at a conference of donors in New York in November.

“One of the poorest provinces in Indonesia, Aceh cannot easily absorb the $7.1 billion in international aid that has been pledged, Mr. Kuntoro said, and does not have the capacity to carry out the quantity of rebuilding that is needed. Some projects have been put off, he told reporters here, because the province has only nine asphalt plants and cannot meet the demand. Although joblessness is a critical problem for the people here, most construction workers come from outside the affected area, because there are not enough skilled workers here, said Ian Small, Oxfam’s senior program manager for Aceh.

“But Mr. Kuntoro said many of the problems had been brought on by the people responsible for reconstruction. Coordination among hundreds of aid groups is “the challenge of challenges,” he said in New York, as projects conflict or overlap. “Corruption is endemic. We cannot let down our guard for a moment.”

Lack of Warning Systems in the Countries Affected by the Great Tsunami of 2004

Indonesia had discussed setting up a tsunami warning system in 1992. The official request for aid from Japan “got lost” in the bureaucracy. The appropriation of $2 million for the project was never approved.

The only device that picked up the tsunami was a wave station that registered a tsunami of less than 60 centimeters high heading south towards Australia. Within 15 minutes after the earthquake the Pacific warning center in Hawaii issued alerts to its member countries, including Indonesia and Thailand. No one on the devastated beaches of Phuket or coastal areas of Bandeh Aceh had any advanced warning. Waves crashed down on Sri Lanka two hours after they were generated by the earthquake but people there had no warnings either.

According to a New York Times editorial: “in a 21st-century age of global Internet, satellite and cell phones communication, there can be no excuse for failing to make sure that lifesaving information reaches everyone in the path of these killer waves. Even so predicting tsunamis is a very inexact science and scientists that were watching the earthquake off Sumatra didn’t realize that large tsunamis had been generated until they saw video of destruction on television in Sri Lanka. The first reports they received were that the earthquake measured 8 on the Richer scale, not 9.3, which is more than a 50 times more powerful than an 8.”

New Warning Systems and After Great Tsunami of 2004

After the disaster governments pledged to establish a high-tech warning system in the Indian Ocean by mid-2006 to prevent future tsunami-related disaster from occurring. Funds and expertise on the Indian Ocean are limited. Japan and United States promised to offer their help and expand their networks to cover the Indian Ocean.

In March 2005, AP reported: “Experts from the United Nations and Indian Ocean countries agreed to set up a tsunami warning system to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe that struck on December 26, Unesco said. A fully functioning system that detects undersea earthquakes and broadcasts warnings to coastal communities is expected to be in place by the end of 2006, said Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Co. [Source: AP]

Japan and the United States are to begin providing alerts on seismic activity to the region starting on April 1. The two countries have the world's most advanced tsunami warning systems. Experts say a similar system in southern Asia would have saved many lives in the Dec 26 disaster. Work will also begin on installing systems that can detect changes in sea level and broadcast the information in real time to countries in potential danger. Tidal gauges will be installed at six sites, mainly off the coasts of hard-hit Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, Bernal said. Another 15 existing sites will be upgraded around the region."We expect to have all those systems operative by October or November," Bernal said.

Describing one of the first tests of the new system in December 2005, AP reported: “Indonesia tested its tsunami warning system for the first time Monday, sounding alarms in a town that sent thousands of residents running through the streets exactly one year after a devastating disaster hit for real. "We knew it was just a drill," said Candra Yohanes, 55, who was among those who fled to higher ground when the sirens rang out in Padang in West Sumatra province, which neighbors the region hardest-hit by last year's tsunami, Aceh. [Source: AP, December 2005]

"Still, when I heard the siren my heart was pounding so hard," she said. "I hope what happened in Aceh is never repeated here." Dummy data from an earthquake sensor on the ocean floor triggered Monday's government-organized exercise. Using the false report, the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG) in Jakarta sent a warning to Padang's mayor, who ordered the emergency evacuation to start. Sirens wailed and 2,000 residents -- many of them women, and children dressed in school uniforms -- fled to a predestined evacuation area on a hill. Ambulances and fire trucks followed.

Indonesia — is in the initial stages of setting up a tsunami early warning system of buoys, beach sirens and international communication lines. But it could take two years before the system is fully operational. BMG head Sri Woro Budi Harijono said that by the end of 2007 about 160 seismographs would be installed in ten regional stations across Indonesia. Each station would eventually be able to process earthquake data within five minutes of receiving it, and issue tsunami warnings direct to local communities without having to rely on the central Jakarta office.

“In the event of a real tsunami, Sri said her agency also would have sent mobile phone text messages to residents and to authorities in eight Asian nations. Sending warnings by SMS was affordable, but would not reach some remote regions with no mobile phone services. "We plan to place sirens at towers along the coastal areas and local police offices," Harijono said.

Dozen Pacific-Rim Tsunami Drill in 2006

In May 2006, AP reported: “A mock tsunami warning set off alarms from Guam to Singapore and sent Philippine villagers scurrying to high ground as Pacific nations held an unprecedented drill organized after the tsunami that devastated Asia in 2004. The massive exercise involving more than two dozen Pacific and Asian nations was conducted over two days. The exercise was aimed at avoiding any repeat of the December 2004 disaster in Asia. [Source: AP, May 17, 2006]

“At the start of the test, e- mails and faxes were sent and alarms sounded in monitoring stations in the participating nations to signal a mock 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the coast of the main northern island of Luzon in the Philippines. The exercise followed a similar test the day before when officials simulated a scenario in which a 9.2-magnitude quake hit Chile, triggering a tsunami that would have affected much of the Pacific Ocean region.

In Bali warnings were sent from Jakarta to radios along the beach. Sirens wailed as crowds, many made up largely of schoolchildren, walked briskly from the shore and made their way to higher ground. “In the coastal village of Buhatan in the Philippines, church bells clanged the alarm that sent nearly 1,000 residents streaming from their homes and heading for a designated hill that was considered high enough to protect them in the event of a tsunami. Just after dawn, village leaders used a stone and a hammer to ring the bells of a small church, signaling the start of the exodus. People then streamed out of their homes, tugging along children and struggling to carry bamboo mats, hammocks, sacks of rice and roosters.

“In Malaysia, meanwhile, about 400 villagers living along the coast of Sabah state on the island of Borneo were evacuated as part of the drill. Major participants in the first test included Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Australia, the United States, Canada and several Pacific islands. Participating countries in the exercise the next day included the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and several Pacific islands.

Indian Ocean Tsunami Drill in 2009

Reporting on Indian Ocean tsunami drills in 2009, Denis D. Gray of AP wrote: “Sirens blared, parents grabbed their children and hundreds ran to emergency shelters in Indonesia as countries bordering the Indian Ocean conducted a test of a warning system set up after the devastating 2004 tsunami. But at least one survivor was too paralyzed by memories of the killer wave to take part in mock evacuations off Aceh, Indonesia. "What is this all for? My chest has gone tight and I am shaking," said Hamiyah, a 58-year-old woman who lost her in-laws, four children and five grandchildren in 2004. [Source: Denis D. Gray, AP, October 15, 2009]

“Planned for 18 countries, the drill was intended to simulate a tsunami similar to the one sparked by the 9.2 magnitude quake off Indonesia in 2004. Dubbed "Exercise Indian Ocean Wave 09," the drill was the first comprehensive test and evaluation of the warning system put in place after the 2004 disaster, said the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO."When the siren sounded, I immediately thought of my child, grabbed her and ran," said Bakhtiar, 50, who lives in the village of Gampong Pie, along the Indonesian coastline in Aceh province.

“In Aceh's Ulee Lheue village, which was all but wiped out by the tsunami, about 200 residents gathered at a mosque after an explosion was sounded from loudspeakers that was meant to signal an earthquake. Around ten minutes later a siren blared out, starting the drill. But Hamiyah refused to take part, breaking down and staying at home, rebuilt after the disaster, with her two surviving children. "It reminds me of the past and makes me really sad. Please stop reminding us," she said, sobbing, as people ran for quake-proof emergency shelters, some carrying the "wounded," as a voice over mosque loudspeakers urged people not to panic.

“In Thailand no evacuation drill was planned but its National Disaster Warning Center was responding to the dummy telegrams, faxes and e-mails being sent out by the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, said Capt. Saran Thappasook. In Myanmar, officials were to relay the warnings to tsunami-prone areas, said Thein Tun, director general of the Meteorological Department, while in Malayia 1,200 villagers on the northern resort island of Langkawi were directed to higher ground as firefighting trucks and ambulances ferried the elderly and pregnant women.

“But in Sri Lanka's southern coastal village of Godawaya, a tsunami warning tower failed to emit a siren. Local fishermen who had stayed home to take part waited for a few hours and decided to go to work. Later, officials manning the tower went around the village announcing a "tsunami threat" through loudspeakers and calling on residents to quickly move to a Buddhist temple on higher ground. Women who were at home gathered at the temple. Air Force SGT M.G.A. Nandana declared the drill was still a success since they an alternative warning method was found in case the warning tower failed.

“Ray Canterford, an official at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, said ahead of the exercise that the Hawaii-based center would issue an earthquake alert to trigger the drill. In Australia, the bureau would use the earthquake data from the tsunami warning center to calculate the size of any tsunami wave and estimate the time it will take to hit the Australian coast. Australia was not affected by the 2004 disaster, but is playing a role in the regional system to improve response times and international coordination. Australia has a network of wave height sensors along its coastline, and two deep sea sensors in waters between Australia's northwest and Indonesia, where some 130,000 were killed. Under the system, Australia, Indonesia and India swap data on a tsunami threat, and Wednesday's drill will test how efficiently messages are sent among those countries, Canterford said. "It's a real time event," Canterford said. "We believe that all or most of the countries in the Indian Ocean are a lot better prepared now than they were in 2004."

Rebuilding Mangroves

National Geographic reported: Off the north end of Sumatra, the landmass nearest the quake’s epicenter center waves damaged some 60,000 acres of mangroves, 30 percent of the coral reefs, and 20 percent of the sea grass beds — all vital fish habitat. While the massive cleanup and reconstruction efforts proceed, conservationists and community leaders are calling for a slowdown of development and a speed up in planting natural barriers. In recent decades shrimp farms, resorts, and industrial projects have leveled vast tracts of mangroves. The hope now is that a green wall will rise before the crushing waves come again.” [Source: National Geographic, April 2005]

In December 2005, AP reported: “Earlier estimates by the Global Environment Center in Malaysia found that governments in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand will need to spend a total of more than US$30 million (euro24.5 million) to plant mangroves and other beach vegetation such as casuarina trees on 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) of their coastlines. [Source: AP, December 21, 2005]

“Initial efforts by aid organizations to replant mangroves faltered because many lacked the technical expertise. But in recent months, a coalition of environmental groups have teamed up with governments across the Indian Ocean basin to launch programs aimed at rebuilding coastal ecosystems and reviving their local economies.

“The IUCN said it has started restoring hundreds of hectares (acres) of mangroves in Sri Lanka and southern Thailand which were hit by the December 2004 tsunami. It also launched Mangroves for the Future, a US$45 million (euro38 million) program that aims to build natural barriers of mangroves in twelve countries in Asia and Africa.

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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