On the morning of December 26, 2004, an earthquake occurred off the coast of Sumatra, measuring 9.15 on the Richter scale. The largest earthquake in four decades, it produced a powerful tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand particularly hard, killing about 227,000 people in 14 countries and leaving 2 million displaced and 1.8 million homeless. It was one of the worst natural catastrophes in the history of the human race. In the last hundred years the only disasters that were in the same league were some earthquakes and floods in China. The deadliest tsunami before this one was the one that killed 36,000 people after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. About 19,000 people were killed by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The December 2004 earthquake released about enough energy to power the United States for six months, or put another way, it generated the equivalent of a 250-megaton bomb shaking every point of the earth an inch or more. The associated shifts in the ocean floor displaced enough water to fill a tank 1.6 kilometers wide, 1.6 kilometers high and more than 11 kilometers long. The Los Angeles Times reported: “Miles beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean, a massive piece of the Earth's crust had heaved, buckled and shifted. Along a fracture zone hundreds of miles long, it moved, releasing pent-up energy equivalent to the power of more than 1,000 atomic bombs. The waters above reared up and crashed down, creating a wave that was now racing across the ocean at 500 mph...The records of history and evidence encoded in coral reefs show that tsunamis have hit the Indian Ocean seldom but with great force.” [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]

At 7:59am local Sumatra time (0:59am Greenwich mean time) the earthquake occurred off the coast of Sumatra. About 8:30am Sumatra time the tsunami struck the west coast of Sumatra and the Nicobar and Andaman islands. About 1 hour and 45 minutes after the earthquake the tsunami hammered eastern Sri Lanka and the Phuket area of Thailand. About two hours after the earthquake the tsunami hit southeastern India. Five hours later, seven hours after the earthquake, it struck Somalia and Kenya.

In some places the December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami is known as the Boxing Day tsunami because it occurred on December 26, the British holiday of Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). In some places the tsunami produced 15 meter waves that were powerful enough to carry fishing boast more than a mile inland; crush five-star hotels; deposit trucks on top of buildings and cars in palm trees; carry away bridges; wipe away islands; suck children out to sea; deposit tourists more than a mile from where they were picked up; and flatten entire cities. Entire neighborhoods, villages and islands were wiped out with no human survivors. Bloated and rotted bodies filled streets and pilled up in rivers and floated far out to sea. Beaches and hotel lobbies became morgues.

In the open ocean the largest waves were only two feet high. Fisherman who were out at sea hardly noticed anything when the tsunami waves passed by them. At least three waves, in many cases more, hit the shores. Before the tsunami arrived in some places the sea was sucked up and water was pulled from the shore, exposing coral reefs and leaving fish flopping on the sand. Some of the victims were children who went out to collect the fish. When the waves came ashore they deposited sharks on dry land and left behind strings of dead snakes.

Earthquake That Triggered the Great Tsunami of 2004

The December 2004 earthquake off Sumatra was the second largest earthquake ever recorded (only a 9.5 earthquake off of Chile in 1960 was bigger). It occurred where part of the ocean floor was thrust upwards by the movement of the India plate under the Burma Plate off the northwest coast of Sumatra, where the India plate and Australian plate dive under Burma at the Sundra Trench plate. During the quake a section of one plate about 700 miles long suddenly plunged about 30 feet beneath another

The earthquake struck along the Sumatra-Andaman fault. The tsunami was so large in part because the movement on the fault was vertical not horizontal and the earthquake did not occur on a single point of the fault as is usually the case with an earthquake but occurred along a 1,200 kilometer length of the fault. In some places the seabed lifted four meters. Movement started off the coast of Sumatra and moved northward along the fault at a rate of around two kilometers per second.

The December 2004 earthquake was so powerful it temporarily shifted the earth on its axis about 2.5 centimeters, caused the earth to spin 3 microseconds faster, lifted the ground by two centimeters as far away as Ecuador and produced the energy equivalent of 1 million Hiroshima bombs. The entire west coast of Sumatra moved. Near the epicenter islands were raised higher out of the sea and moved 100 feet to the southeast. Buildings swayed as far away as Bangladesh and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Seismic waves produced by the earthquake traveled around the earth three times. An observatory in Japan recorded the first set of waves at 10:20am, the second set around 12:55pm and the third set around 3:55pm.

Details of the Great Tsunami of December 2004

The earthquake occurred in deep water. There was an upwards movement of the sea floor towards the north of a few meters. Because there was so much water on top of and so much pressure, the energy released was enormous. Minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami split, producing pulses of waves that moved both east and west. The earthward-moving wave traveled with trough first, pulling water away from the shore, while the one heading west traveled crest first.

As is true with most tsunamis the waves radiated out in directions opposite from the seismic disturbance. The earthquake-generating fault ran north-to-south while the tsunamis moved east and west. That is why Bangladesh suffered relatively little damage while Sri Lanka got walloped. A 1,120-kilometer section of sea floor — extending northward from the epicenter past northern Sumatra and into the Nicobar and Andaman Islands of India — shifted, moving as much as 20 meters in some places. This explains why so much water was displaced so suddenly, proding a large tsunami, and why the tsunami hit places like southern Thailand and northern Malaysia that appeared to have been blocked from the epicenter of the earthquake by Sumatra.

The waves of the tsunami raced across the Indian Ocean at speeds up to 700 kilometers per hour and reached a height 15 meter in some places. The backwash reached speeds of 350 kilometers per hour. In Indonesia and Thailand, where the water near the shore is relatively shallow, the waves crashed ashore like large Hawaiian waves except they surged inland. In Sri Lanka and India, where the water is deeper the waves were in the form of surges that poured water inland like quick, surging tides. On Mauritius and Diego Garcia — islands in the Indian Ocean — the tsunami barreled right past, causing very little damage. Some waves eventually reached the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.

The waves reached the west coast of Sumatra within minutes after the earthquake and Thailand 30 minutes to an hour later. They reached Sri Lanka and India in about two hours, the Maldives in 3½ hours and Africa in six hours. In some cases waves reached islands of India before they reached Thailand. This is because the sea around the west of Thailand is relatively shallow, which slowed the waves down considerably.

The largest waves that hit Sumatra were 25 meters high. Three-meter waves hit Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia, where dozens of people were killed. Three-meter waves hit the Americas. A “train” of 22-centimeter-high waves produced by the tsunami reached the east coast of the United States 32 hours after the earthquake.

According to the Christian Science Monitor: Tsunamis are typically the devastating handiwork of quakes known as subduction earthquakes. They're the most powerful earthquakes on the planet, and they occur at plate boundaries, where one tectonic plate is grinding inexorably beneath another. When the bottom plate suddenly lurches deeper, a colossal amount of energy is released, unleashing the sorts of massive earthquakes and calamitous tsunamis that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004 and the coast of Japan in March 2011.

Victims of the Great Tsunami of 2004

According to the United States Geological Survey 227,898 people died in 11 different countries. Around 170,000 were killed (130,000 confirmed dead, 37,000 missing) in Indonesia , most of them in Aceh province. Another 35,000 were killed in Sri Lanka, 18,000 in India (including 5,600 missing) and around 8,000 were killed in Thailand (5,395 confirmed dead and 2,929 listed as missing as of April 2005). People were also killed in Malaysia (68 dead), Myanmar (90), Bangladesh (2), the Maldives (82), Somalia (298), Tanzania (10) and Kenya (1)

Most victims drowned or are were crushed by debris. Many were poor people who lived in flimsy houses that were easily swept away by the surge of water. In many ways the most dangerous aspect of these waves was the incoming and outgoing current that swept people away and in many cases carried them far out to sea.

The number of casualties would have been considerably less if an effective warning system had been in place. Most of the places that were hit received no warning. Many people that died were killed while trying to warn others. People that looked out for themselves and made a run for it had a better chance of survival.

The tsunami killed three times as many women as men. In Indonesia some villages were left with ten times as many men as women. This was because many men were out at sea or working in fields and women were caught in home near the shore and unable to outrun the surging waters. The men also tended to be better swimmers because many were engaged in fishing and women were slowed in their attempt to escape by trying to help their children.

Many children were also lost. The tsunami occurred on a Sunday. Most children were not in school. Many were playing near the sea. fewer children would have died if the tsunami hit on a weekday and more children were at schools further inland. The Washington Post reported: The waves arrived on a Sunday morning, when most children were not in school, leaving coastal-dwelling youngsters free to play by the water. UNICEF officials said Tuesday that as many as one-third to half of the dead may be children. [Source: Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post, December 30, 2004]

In some places many elderly were among the dead. It is reasoned they could not run away or swim to safety. According to the Washington Post, Elderly Thais died disproportionately, according to officials at hospitals and morgues, suggesting that people who could run more swiftly had a better chance to escape. Men also died in greater numbers, because they tend to work by the water.

A number of foreigners were killed, most them people vacationing in Thailand and Sri Lanka. As of January 20, 2004 they included Germans (60 dead, 615 missing), Swedes (52 dead, 637 missing), Britons (52 dead, 464 missing), Americans (37 dead, unknown missing), Japanese (25 dead, 67 missing), Swiss (23 dead, 240 missing), Australia (23 dead, 18 missing), French (22 dead, 74 missing), Italians (20 dead, 190 missing), and people from 35 other countries.

Looking for Victims of the Great Tsunami of 2004

Many of the victims were found in destroyed houses. Some were found floating in the sea, rivers or ponds. Other were found dangling from tree limbs. Some were found by men digging ditches, gardens and foundations. They had been buried under mud during the disaster and that mud had hardened into earth.

Many victims were stripped of their clothes and identification. People found without identification were identified using fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples. The process was slowed by delays in the arrival of “ante mortem” data from families of the victims. DNA identification was not as effective as people thought it would be because the tissues of the dead decayed very fast in the tropical heat of places struck by the tsunami.

Many of the victims had no dental records or no other means that could be used to identify them. In many places the dead were cremated or buried soon after their bodies were found — for religious and health reasons — and no real efforts was made to identify them.

Many the bodies were bloated and decomposed by the time they were found. many were loaded on to trucks and dumped in lime-coated mass graves. Some of the missing are believed to be people who were buried without being identified. Coffins were used up quickly. In many places the body bags weren’t available either and corpses were simply wrapped in plastic.

Damage and Elephants and the Search for Victims of the Great Tsunami of 2004

The tsunami devastated over 5,000 miles of coastline, ruined 2,000 miles of roads, swept away 430,000 homes and damaged or destroyed over 100,000 fishing boats.

In Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka elephants were put to work clearing away rubble and debris in the search for bodies. Elephants were regarded as better at this job than bulldozers and other kinds of heavy machinery because they had lighter, more sensitive touch. Many of the elephants that did the work were employed in circuses and tourist parks.

One elephant handler told the Los Angeles Times, “They’re very good at this. The elephant’s sense of smell is much better than that of human’s. Their trunk can get right into small spaces and lift the rubble.” Bulls were applauded for their strength and ability to lift concrete walls. females were considered smarter and more sensitive. The elephants did not hand the bodies, which were often badly decomposed when they were found but lifted debris while human volunteers collected the body. Elephants were also put work towing cars and moving trees.

Survivors of the Great Tsunami of 2004

Fishermen who were out at sea generally survived. Those close to shore or on land who made it their boats had a better chance of survival than those on land. The New York Times reported: Amid the devastation, however, were some miraculous and wonderful stories of survival. A Hong Kong couple vacationing in Thailand survived by clinging to a mattress while in the raging ocean for six hours. A 20-day-old baby, in Malaysia, a was found alive on a floating mattress. She and her family were later happily reunited.

It was not unusual for survivors to lose several children, brothers, sisters, parents, other relatives, their homes, their clothes and everything they owned. After the disaster some wore used clothes provided by aid agencies and either lived in relief camps or moved around between the homes of relatives.

Many children lost their parents but there were few true orphans. Most had some relative or another that could take them in. There were many more cases of parents losing children than visas versa.

Many survivors who were swept away are not even sure how they survived. They remember being carried away by the water and blacked out, thinking they were going to die, and woke up some place alive.

Many local people, even Christians and Muslims, blamed local gods and gods of the sea for the disaster or looked at the sins and karma of themselves and those around as an explanation for survival or death. Some credited their survival to a ritual offering made months before or a picture of a famous Buddhist monk.

After the Great Tsunami of 2004

After the disaster emphasis was placed more on the living than the dead. Some people predicted an outbreak of disease. There were concerns about malaria and dengue fever being spread by mosquitos in pools of water left behind by the tsunami (some mosquitos that carried these diseases can breed in salt water and brackish water as well as fresh water). There were worries about dysentery, tetanus, severe diarrhea, typhoid, cholera and hepatitis from the presence of dead bodies, contaminated water, lack of toilets, poor sanitation. Outbreaks of disease largely did not happen. Local doctors and ordinary people were credited with achieving as much as foreign relief agencies.

United Nations general secretary Kofi Annan said, “This an unprecedented global catastrophe that requires an unprecedented global response.” catastrophe A quick response by relief agencies and local people also prevented malnutrition and starvation. For the most part food supplies were able to get where they were needed in a timely fashion. Many people survived on rice, sweet biscuits and instant noodles that had been provided by aid groups and local donors. Diarrhea was often the worst health problem and it was less severe when potable water was available. Aid workers tried prevent to dehydration. There were some problems with injuries becoming infected due to lack of medicines.

Heavy rains hit many areas after the tsunami. The large amount of standing water caused worries about malaria. An effort was made to get mosquito netting to places where the danger of malaria was the highest and fumigate areas with lots of stagnant water, where mosquitos can breed. Some of the camps for victims were invaded with biting red ants.

Looting was a problem in some places. But in some cases determining what was looting and what was reasonably justifiable scavenging was difficult. Police didn’t arrest very many people for looting in part because many of the jails were washed away and there was no place to put prisoners.

Psychological and Social Problems and the Great Tsunami of 2004

The shortage of women after the disaster was linked to reports of rape and forced marriage. There were even some reports of young women being raped by men who rescued them. There were also reports of orphans and other children being snatched up for illegal adoptions and use as child prostitutes.

About 90 percent of the survivors were expected to feel depression, grief and sadness after the disaster but eventually recover and live normal lives. The other 10 percent were expected to develop serious mental disorders such as severe depression, anxiety, problems related to drug or alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorders. The most vulnerable were children who lost both parents, women who lost close family members and people that had psychological problems before the disaster. In the tsunami disaster so many people were affected that even if a small number of them had mental problems that still added up to a lot of people.

Many children were deeply traumatized and refused to speak or spoke very little. They clung to whoever was near them. They refused to play with other children and jumped whenever they heard a loud noise such as plane taking off.

Many people were so traumatized by the tsunami they were afraid to move back to — or even visit or go near — the seaside. This was particularly tough for people who had traditionally made their living from the sea and got many of the things they needed from it.

In February 2006, AP reported: More than a year after the tsunami in Southeast Asia, many of the most vulnerable survivors are plagued by discrimination in aid distribution, forced relocation and violence against women, according to a report by the NGOs, including ActionAid International. Within the countries — Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldive — some of the most vulnerable groups are women, children and ethnic minorities, the report said. Field research involving 50,000 survivors found widespread instances of land grabby to serve commercial interests, shoddy construction in government-sponsored housing projects, and uneven distribution of aid packages among devastated industries. The report described how women were taken advantage of and denied access to sanitary napkins and underwear because distribution of these items was under the control of men.

Tsunami Orphans, Hasty Adoptions and Child Trafficking

A New York Times editorial read: Children were one-third of the casualties of the tsunamis, and those who survived are suffering the worst effects of their aftermath. Untold thousands have been orphaned or separated from families. Without protection or caregivers, they are at greatest risk for starvation and disease. They are also in danger from human traffickers, who have long operated in South Asia with near impunity, and who must have viewed the tsunamis as an opportunity to prey on the victims. Amazingly, these criminals seem to have been largely stymied by governments determined to prevent further tragedy. In a region devoid of cheer, this is at least a hopeful moment. [Source: New York Times, January 13, 2005]

“Soon after the wave hit, Indonesia - where an estimated 35,000 children have lost one or both parents - moved to protect young people in hard-hit Aceh, barring the departure of children from that province unless they are accompanied by verifiable family members. Thailand is doing the same, and other areas are imposing their own controls. The emphasis is on finding lost children, registering them and housing them until they can be reunited with their families. Adoptions - which can sometimes be a front for trafficking - have been suspended in several countries. Child protection officers are making themselves visible in villages.

“These extraordinary efforts will no doubt save young people who might otherwise be exported for sale as sex slaves or sweatshop labor. While estimates vary, the nations of South Asia are notorious for supplying a large part of the hundreds of thousands of children trafficked every year as part of a $12 billion criminal enterprise worldwide. The clampdown by countries hit by the tsunamis follows pressure from the State Department, Unicef and nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision and Vital Voices, which have ratcheted up their monitoring and joined efforts to protect the most vulnerable disaster victims. The enormity of the tsunamis' impact and attention from a watchful world seem to have helped local officials get past the corruption in their ranks and overcome the kind of denial that has in the past helped give traffickers a pass. As a result, there have been just a handful of confirmed reports of post-tsunami child trafficking.

Deborah Zabarenko wrote in Reuters, “The youngest victims of the Asian tsunami may be homeless, traumatized and possibly orphaned, but they are not yet candidates for U.S. adoption, the State Department said days after the disaster. The U.S. government and some adoption agencies have been deluged with offers to place the children of the catastrophe with American families, but this is not feasible now, said Kelly Shannon, a State Department spokeswoman. [Source: Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters, January 5, 2005]

"The State Department shares the humanitarian concern for the children of this tragedy and applauds American citizens' desire to assist them in their time of need," Shannon said by telephone. "However, at this time it is not possible for U.S. citizens to adopt these children." U.S. immigration law stipulates that children adopted from other countries must qualify as legitimate orphans -- with no parents, or with a sole-surviving parent who is incapable of providing proper care for the child, and who has released the child for emigration and adoption. The situation in the worst-hit areas -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India -- is still so unstable that it is difficult to tell which children are truly orphans, she said. In the coming months some apparently orphaned children may be in fact reunited with their parents, she added.

“Holt International Children's Services, an agency that arranges U.S. adoptions of Asian children, has fielded hundreds of inquiries from prospective adoptive parents of the tsunami surviving children. "They started almost immediately (after word of the tragedy was reported) and that's something that is rather predictable," said Susan Cox, a spokeswoman for Holt in Eugene, Oregon. "Whenever there has been a crisis, whether human or from nature, the results are children are the most vulnerable. ... We got hundreds of calls and e-mails."

Environmental Damage from the Great Tsunami of 2004

The December 2004 tsunami destroyed coral reefs, mangrove forests and seaweed beds. Little could be done to help damaged coral reefs except to be patient and let nature takes its natural course. Mangrove forests provide an important spawning area for fish. An effort was made to replant mangrove forests. Communities protected by intact fringing reefs such as the Maldives and Mauritius, and protective mangrove forests such as parts of India, suffered much less damage than areas that didn’t have these protective features.

The tsunami washed away entire sections of coastline, pushed sludge and saline water up rivers, damaged rice paddies and fields with salt and silt, and contaminated wells, aquifers and freshwater ponds and lakes with salt water, sediments, sewage, oil and other pollutants and toxins. Rain washed away much of the damage. Farmers used pumps and irrigation to flush out their fields and were encouraged to grow salt-resistant crops such as pumpkins and kale.

Large amounts of debris was deposited on both land and sea. Much of the early land-based rebuilding effort was focused in removing debris so that rebuilding could take place. Offshore debris and sunken boats presented a hazard to maritime traffic and an effort was made to remove these as quickly as possible. In tourist areas teams removed debris from coral reefs visited by divers.

Toxic and radioactive waste that had been dumped off the coast of Somalia was washed ashore by the tsunami and was blamed for an outbreak of illness. Few wild animals were killed by the tsunami (see Sri Lanka). There were cases of some marines creatures being washed miles inland. Some stranded sea turtles were rescued and returned to the sea.

National Geographic reported: “Off the north end of Sumatra, the landmass nearest the quake’s epicenter , 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 habitats. Other grave problems stem from the onslaught of seawater laden with sediments and toxins. Aquifers, the primary source of drinking water, have been contaminated by salt water, raw sewage, oil and other pollutants. On the coasts of Indonesia and Sri Lanka paddies and farm fields are smothered under a crust of salt and silt. Some areas may never recover. For others irrigation and one more rainy season may be enough to flush out the soil...Farmers are being encouraged to plant salt tolerant crops , like pumpkins and kale.” [Source: National Geographic, April 2005]

Underwater Dead Zone Near Epicenter of December 2004 Earthquake

The Times of London reported: “An underwater “dead zone” devoid of most life has been discovered on the ocean floor near the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami. The first scientific dives off the coast of Sumatra since the disaster have revealed that, while most marine life was not affected, one site appears to have become uninhabitable to large marine species. [Source: Mark Henderson, The Times, December 16, 2005]

“A submersible that made an 11-hour dive to a feature known as the Ditch, 2½ miles (4km) beneath the ocean’s surface west of the earthquake’s epicentre, found no trace of fish or other marine “megafauna”. The absence of visible life was “unprecedented in 25 years of deep-sea sampling”, scientists from the international Census of Marine Life said. Ron O’Dor, the senior scientist on the census, said: “The sea is rich in life and you would expect a site like this to be quickly recolonised, but that hasn’t happened. It’s unprecedented.”

“The “dead zone” appears to have been created when the Boxing Day earthquake, or one of its aftershocks, caused the collapse of an underwater cliff that released vast quantities of sediment into the water. The fine sediment would make it very difficult for larger marine species such as fish to thrive, though it may not have affected very small creatures that were not sampled during the expedition. “It is not a good environment for an animal to live in,” said Paul Tyler, of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, (UK) who took part in the study.

“Scientists have been puzzled to find such damage at only one site, as seven other spots investigated by the expedition were largely unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami. Professor O’Dor said: “Normally when you go to the bottom of the sea anywhere and take a sample or look around, there’s always something alive. But five months after the earthquake this entire plain, created by the collapse of this cliff, was essentially devoid of life. “No one has ever got to a site like this so quickly before. It may just be that it takes a while for things to get back to normal. The sea is very cold at this depth, and typically the speed of life is proportional to temperature. Nothing happens very fast at 4C (39F).”

Mangroves and Coral Reefs Protected Communities Hit by Tsunami

National Geographic reported: “As reports from tsunami-stricekn nations filtered in a pattern merged: Communities lying behind a fringe of shallow water mangroves, like parts of the Indian coastline, or intact coral reef, a sin the Maldive Islands, suffered less damage and los of life than places exposed directly to the brute force of the waves. [Source: National Geographic, April 2005]

In December 2005, AP reported: “The massive waves from last year's tsunami did their worst damage in communities that lacked protection from mangrove forests and other natural barriers, a conservation group said Wednesday. The World Conservation Union or IUCN said it hopes that its findings will motivate hard-hit communities across Asia to consider replanting mangroves--a quarter of which have been destroyed since the 1980s in tsunami-impacted countries due to development and the rapid growth of shrimp and fish farms. [Source: AP, December 21, 2005]

"Damage could have been prevented with a healthy mangrove barrier protecting the shoreline,'' says Achim Steiner, Director General of the Swiss-based IUCN. "Now that the emergency is over, it is time to start reconstructing the environmental infrastructure of the region.'' Based on surveys of tsunami-hit regions, the IUCN found that villages with mangrove forest fared much better than those exposed to the open seas.

Their findings mirror those in India where the presence of mangrove forests and other barriers like sand dunes were credited with saving lives. The IUCN found that only 2 people died in the Sri Lankan village of Kapuhenwala which was surrounded by 200 hectares of dense mangroves and scrub forest. In contrast, nearly 6,000 people died in the nearby village of Wanduruppa, where mangrove forests had largely been wiped out, it said. A separate study release in October by researchers led by Finn Danielsen of the Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology in Copenhagen, Denmark reached similar conclusions.

Inadequate Warnings of the Great Tsunami of 2004 from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

Tom O’Neil wrote in National Geographic: Many of the communities hit had virtually no memory of a powerful tsunami or what the warning signs of an approaching one would be — the last oceanwide wave, from the eruption of Krakatau off southern Sumatra, occurred in 1883. Lacking that knowledge and any kind of detection or warning systems in the Indian Ocean, coastal areas were defenseless against the waves. Early warning systems and more coastal vegetation might have saved many of the 1,800 victims drowned or crushed by debris in Khao Lak, Thailand. Almost two hours passed from the time the quake occurred until the wall of water tore through hotels and huts there. Amid the rubble Kusol Wetchakul, above, prayed for his missing sister, believed swept away by the unstoppable water. [Source: National Geographic, Geographica, December 2005]

Describing what happened in facilities set up to watch for tsunamis, the Los Angeles Times reported: “Stuart Weinstein, a 43-year-old former New Yorker now living in Hawaii, was taking advantage of the quiet of a rainy Christmas afternoon to work on a research project. Inside the computer room of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center -- a high-tech lair of flat-screen monitors, maps and digital wall displays -- a computer caught his attention. The jagged lines relayed a signal from a seismic sensor thousands of miles away in the Cocos Islands, southwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, conveying the news of a large earthquake off that island's west coast. [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]

“The computer automatically sent a pager signal to one of Weinstein's colleagues, Andrew Hirshorn, who had been napping at his home nearby. Hirshorn, a soft-spoken 48-year-old with a gray ponytail, threw on a shirt and ran over. The two men conferred. Initial readings indicated the earthquake was magnitude 8 -- significant, but not enormous. It was outside the Pacific Ocean, their area of expertise and responsibility.

“The center, a U.S. government agency that does much of the work for the U.N.-sanctioned Pacific tsunami warning system, was set up in 1965 in response to a quake off the coast of Chile that had generated a tsunami, killing people as far away as Hawaii and Japan. The center monitors sophisticated tidal gauges and computerized buoys dotting the Pacific. Nothing comparable tracks the Indian Ocean.

“Computers ate up 15 minutes verifying the earthquake reading, plotting its location, estimating its size. At 3:14 p.m. Hawaii time, the two men sent a bulletin on an automated e-mail and fax list to their colleagues around the Pacific Rim: TSUNAMI BULLETIN NUMBER 001... PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER/NOAA/NWS... ISSUED AT 0114Z 26 DEC 2004 ...THIS BULLETIN IS FOR ALL AREAS OF THE PACIFIC BASIN EXCEPT ALASKA-BRITISH COLUMBIA-WASHINGTON- OREGON-CALIFORNIA... THIS MESSAGE IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY. THERE IS NO TSUNAMI WARNING OR WATCH IN EFFECT... AN EARTHQUAKE HAS OCCURRED WITH THESE PRELIMINARY PARAMETERS...ORIGIN TIME -- 0059Z 26 DEC 2004....COORDINATES -- 3.4 NORTH 95.7 EAST...LOCATION -- OFF THE COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA...MAGNITUDE -- 8.0...EVALUATION: THIS EARTHQUAKE IS LOCATED OUTSIDE THE PACIFIC. NO DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI THREAT EXISTS BASED ON HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI DATA. Already the wave had traveled roughly 100 miles from the epicenter in an ever-widening circle. In Indonesia, the first victims were about to die.

Inadequate Warnings of the Great Tsunami of 2004 by USGS

The Los Angeles Times reported: “When an earthquake hits, shock waves travel through the Earth and within minutes begin jiggling sensitive equipment at about 350 monitoring stations around the world. Those stations, in turn, relay data by satellite to computers at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. Don Blakeman, a USGS geophysicist, was about to have Christmas dinner when his pager went off -- a computer-generated warning that a major quake had just occurred. A colleague, Julie Martinez, also was paged and began analyzing data on her home computer while Blakeman drove to the office. [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]

“As data from more and more stations began to arrive, Blakeman revised the estimate of the temblor's magnitude to 8.5 -- a threefold increase in size. He triggered a computer program that notified the White House, State Department and major relief agencies of a massive quake. The information also went automatically to the tsunami warning center in Hawaii, where director Charles McCreery, 54, had abandoned plans to assemble his young daughters' pink bicycles and joined his colleagues watching the computer readouts.

“McCreery saw that the quake was much larger than previously thought and therefore more likely to cause a tsunami. He decided to send out a second bulletin: NO DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI THREAT EXISTS FOR THE PACIFIC BASIN BASED ON HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI DATA. THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF A TSUNAMI NEAR THE EPICENTER. Roughly an hour had passed since the quake. Unseen by experts, the wave already had traveled halfway across the Indian Ocean and claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Warnings Catch Up with the Magnitude of the Tsunami

The Los Angeles Times reported: “At the tsunami center in Hawaii, McCreery and his colleagues improvised a warning system, rushing to contact officials in countries that could be the wave's next victims. They talked to U.S. consular officials across the Indian Ocean in Madagascar and Mauritius, who said they would relay warnings to Somalia and Kenya. More data arrived. Scientists boosted their magnitude estimate again, to 9 -- 10 times larger than the first estimate -- confirming that the quake was one of the most powerful in a century. Only then did people and technology catch up with the wave. [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]

“In this case, the warnings proved effective. Even in Somalia, where little centralized authority exists, word of mouth carried the warnings to some fishing villages and may have saved many lives. In Kenya, only one person died. "Officials were on TV and radio, ordering beaches closed and telling hotels to bring back their guests," said Mike Fitzpatrick, political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. "They really responded," he said. "It may be a coincidence that the president of Kenya was also vacationing on the coast -- that may have made them a little more attentive."

“About eight hours after the disaster began, the White House summoned U.S. officials to a 4 a.m. meeting in Washington to begin planning a response. The quake and tsunami had killed more than 80,000 people in Indonesia, 4,500 in Thailand, 28,000 in Sri Lanka, 9,000 in India and several hundred in half a dozen other nations, with the figures expected to grow. Millions were left orphaned, homeless, bereft. Families in Europe and Israel, South Korea and the United States began frantic searches for missing loved ones.

“The world watched in horror as the scope of the disaster unfolded, the death toll doubling and redoubling. Doubts haunted the scientists at the tsunami warning center in Hawaii, the ones who had caught the first glimmers of impending catastrophe from seismographs. Should we have known the wave was coming? they asked themselves. What else could we have done? Might a phone call to the right person at the right time have saved more lives? Amid thousands of accounts of loss and survival, one hit Weinstein particularly hard. It was of a woman in Banda Aceh looking for her 11 children swept away in the flooding. "That was a kick in the stomach. How do you overcome something like that?" he said a few days later. Added his colleague, Hirshorn: "It is this scar that is going to be there forever."

Covering the December 2004 Tsunami

Michael Elliot, editor of Time Asia, wrote: “In Phuket, Thailand, the morning of Dec. 26 was as gorgeous as the seven that had preceded it. I was playing golf with a Finnish couple a few hundred meters from the island's western coast, when some kids came running onto the course, upset and agitated. Something terrible, they let us know, had happened on the beach. [Source: Time, January 10, 2005]

“Racing back to my hotel to check that my wife and children were fine (which they were) I received a voice mail from Alex Perry, Time's New Delhi bureau chief, on vacation in the Indian Himalayas. He knew much more about the disaster than I did, so even before I saw the devastation on Phuket's beaches for myself, I knew that many had been less fortunate than my family. And that we had a huge story on our hands.

“Back in Hong Kong, Time Asia's deputy editor William Green and senior editor Zoher Abdoolcarim, together with picture editor Lisa Botos, had started to deploy our forces, as correspondents and photographers in the region called one another with the news. Photographer John Stanmeyer, near his home in Bali, got a text message about the disaster from Andrew Marshall, who writes for us from Bangkok. Within hours they were off, Stanmeyer to Sri Lanka along with New Delhi correspondent Aravind Adiga, and Marshall to Phuket with photographer Philip Blenkinsop. In Jakarta, correspondent Zamira Loebis scrambled to get up to Aceh province in northern Sumatra, and arrived there early Tuesday morning with photographer Kemal Jufri. As she drove into the provincial capital Banda Aceh, says Loebis, she realized the scale of the tragedy. "There were hundreds of bodies," she recounts, "covered in blue and yellow plastic."

On the impact of the media coverage, Edward Girardet wrote in National Geographic: “Millions around the world stayed riveted to TV screens — watching homes obliterated and bloated bodies washing up on beaches. They called 800 numbers, they logged on to emergency websites, they pledged something, anything, to help. By depicting the tsunami as an unprecedented global phenomenon, the media helped ensure that it became one of the largest humanitarian operations ever: almost seven billion dollars in emergency relief aid from private and government sources — far more than the aid organizations could ever hope to spend for that purpose. [Source: Edward Girardet, National Geographic, December 2005]

Putting the Great Tsunami of 2004 in Perspective

Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker: “Nearly four million men, women, and children have died as a consequence of the Congo civil war. Seventy thousand have perished in the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. In the year just ended, scores of thousands died in wars and massacres elsewhere in Africa, in Asia, in the archipelagoes of the Pacific, and, of course, in Iraq. Less dramatically, but just as lethally, two million people died of malaria around the world, and another million and a half of diarrhea.Five million children died of hunger. Three million people died of aids, mostly in Africa. The suffering of these untimely and terrible deaths — whether inflicted by deliberate violence, the result of human agency, or by avoidable or treatable malady, the result of human neglect — is multiplied by heartbroken parents and spouses, numbed and abandoned children, and, often, ruined survivors vulnerable to disease and predation and dependent, if they are lucky, on the spotty kindness of strangers. [Source: Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker, January 17, 2005]

“The giant wave that radiated from western Sumatra on the day after Christmas destroyed the lives of at least a hundred and fifty thousand people and the livelihoods of millions more. A hundred and fifty thousand: fifty times the toll of 9/11, but “only” a few per cent of that of the year’s slower, more diffuse horrors. The routine disasters of war and pestilence do, of course, call forth a measure of relief from public and private agencies (and to note that this relief is almost always inadequate is merely to highlight the dedication of those who deliver it). But the great tsunami has struck a deeper chord of sympathy.

“One can understand why. Partly it’s that although the scale of the horror is unimaginable (or so it has been repeatedly described), the horror itself is all too imaginable. A giant wave speaks to a childlike fear that can be apprehended by anyone who has ventured too far out from the beach in a suddenly mounting swell, has felt helpless in the suck of undertow or riptide, has been slammed and spun and choked by a breaker tall enough to block the sky. Partly it’s that the reach of the disaster was so vast, far vaster than any hurricane or monsoon or terrestrial earthquake: three thousand miles from end to end. Partly it’s that people from all over the world, seeking a holiday in the sun, witnessed the catastrophe. People from more than fifty countries lost their lives in it; among the dead and missing, nearly two weeks later, were more than seven thousand foreign tourists. (Nearly two thousand of them were Swedes; if that number holds, then Sweden’s immediate losses, proportionately, will be greater than Thailand’s.) Finally, and perhaps most important, it’s that this is a drama that has victims and heroes — but no villains. No human ones, anyway.

One World Health Organization says the HIV/AIDS pandemic kills as many people as this tsunami every three weeks. “Somehow, people just seem to accept that Africans are starving or getting killed. It's no big deal," Dr. Kees Rietveld, a veteran humanitarian health worker, told National Geographic. "But when you have blond Swedish children or a Czech fashion model swept away by some tidal wave, that's a totally different matter." "This shows how grotesquely skewed international humanitarian aid is toward high-profile crises," says Jonathan Walter, the New Delhi-based editor of the World Disasters Report, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“The terrible arbitrariness of the disaster has troubled clergymen of many persuasions,” Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker. “The Archbishop of Canterbury is among those newly struggling with the old question of how a just and loving God could permit, let alone will, such an undeserved horror. (Of course, there are also preachers, thankfully few, who hold that the horror is not only humanly deserved but divinely intended, on account of this or that sin or depredation.) The tsunami, like the city-size asteroid that, on September 29th, missed the earth by only four times the distance of the moon, is a reminder that, one way or another, this is the way the world ends. Man’s laws are proscriptive, nature’s merely descriptive.

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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