Boxing Day Tsunami: 14 years on | Sunday Observer

Boxing Day Tsunami: 14 years on

Where were you at 9.36 a.m. on December 26, 2004? That has become one of the definitive questions such as, “where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot?” It is a moment that we will all remember, as long as we live. Indeed, the Indian Ocean tsunami is the most catastrophic event in living memory for many of us. And 14 years have passed since that fateful day, which saw the deaths of nearly 240,000 people across 14 countries in Asia and Africa.

But at that exact time, no one in Sri Lanka (and I believe most other countries) knew what was about to happen. The very word tsunami was unknown to 99 percent of the population. I, for one, knew what it meant but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would see the devastating effects of a tsunami in Sri Lanka itself.

One of the main reasons for the massive loss of life in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami was the lack of an early warning system. Although the US Geological Survey tried to warn the Indian Ocean countries, a combination of missteps prevented the message from going to the right eyes and ears. The result was a tragedy of huge proportions.

It was a harrowing day that simply has no parallel, even for a country such as Sri Lanka which had suffered immensely due to a protracted terrorist conflict. Triggered by a 9.15 undersea quake that literally shook the Earth and even changed its orbit slightly, the tsunami swept through coastal towns reducing them virtually to cinders. Indonesia was the worst affected country (130,000 deaths) and Sri Lanka was the second in line, with nearly 40,000 deaths islandwide. The scale of the disaster became apparent only when the bodies began to pile up, with most coastal areas reduced to rubble. By the end of the day, many survivors had lost their entire families and properties, leaving them completely helpless.

However, this moment of despair gave rise to a feeling of oneness, of unity that was perhaps repeated only when the country vanquished terrorism five years later, in 2009. All the people got together as one and rose to the challenge of helping the victims of the unprecedented disaster, shedding all differences. Foreign aid also poured in, for immediate rehabilitation purposes and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure facilities/private properties.

The word – as well as the phenomenon – was etched deeply in the collective conscience of a nation on that tragic day. Ever since, the mere mention of the word is enough to instil fear in our minds. There have been several tsunamis in other parts of the world since then, most noticeably Japan (March 11, 2011), but nothing could come close to the sheer scale of death and destruction caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004.

The reconstruction of tsunami-hit areas is a work in progress and the authorities in all the countries have turned it into an opportunity to ‘build back better’. Some areas are virtually unrecognizable and laws have been introduced to ensure that no one dies from a future tsunami. Asia has received a state-of-the-art tsunami warning system with active and passive safety features while emergency services have been geared to inform and evacuate coastal dwellers as fast as possible. With almost everyone having a cellular phone, sending a warning text has become a very effective approach.

The Indian Ocean Region has a sophisticated tsunami information gathering and distribution network that cost billions of dollars. All cellular operators have tested their capability to mass broadcast SMS messages on tsunamis to their subscribers. Warning siren towers have been erected in all coastal areas, with paths to safety clearly marked. Television and radio stations are under instructions to broadcast any warning messages, for those who may not have access to phones.

Yet, we have not reached perfection in this regard. A decade after the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, the Asia-Pacific region remains highly disaster prone and critical gaps remain in early warning, especially in reaching the most vulnerable people and remote communities.

This was exposed recently when a tsunami struck in Indonesia and scientists later found that critical components of the tsunami early warning system were either damaged, vandalized or simply non-functioning.

There is also a tendency towards taking ‘natural’ steps to stop a tsunami in its tracks. For example, it was observed that places with a heavy presence of mangroves and corals experienced only a minimal impact from the tsunami. Many coastal villagers have taken this to heart. A few yards inland from the new post-tsunami coastline in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on land left waterlogged by the killer wave, the survivors have planted 70,000 mangrove trees. The trees are growing well, and villagers see them as protection against any future invasion from the ocean.

The upside of all this is that we do know a lot more about tsunamis now than at any other time. Numerous scientific studies and modelling studies have been conducted post-2004 on the origin and spread of tsunamis which could ultimately save many more lives should an undersea quake or tsunami happen.

Worldwide, scientists are beginning to unravel more details and secrets about tsunamis. Sophisticated computer modelling programs can pinpoint how a particular tsunami would unfold.

Although earthquakes and tsunamis cannot be predicted with any degree of accuracy with the currently available technology, scientists now have a better understanding of how a tsunami wave would behave depending on its origin, intended destination and type.

Unfortunately, earthquakes per se cannot still be predicted with any degree of accuracy or certainty. One can only estimate the time it takes for a tsunami wave to reach a particular destination after an earthquake takes place.

It is difficult to find a rhythm to earthquakes, even though the last major tsunami in Asia prior to 2004 had occurred probably in 1300-1400 AD. Indeed, a big undersea quake can happen tomorrow or in another 1,000 years.

The tsunami shattered the myth that Sri Lanka and surrounding countries were “safe’ from earthquakes or undersea quakes. Now that we know the power and fury of the ocean, and the damage it could do, subliminally, we will always fear and respect it.

On the other hand, the ocean is central to our lives as islanders. It is a resource we cannot do without. It is an equation that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.

We may obliterate all physical traces of the tsunami, but it is not so easy to heal the mental scars of thousands of people who had lost everything they cherished – their loved ones, their belongings and their houses. What do you tell a then two-year-old child who had lost all his or her family ? Fourteen years down the line, he or she would be 16, but a personal tragedy on that scale is hard to fathom and bear, at any age.

We have to be one with them as we remember all those who perished that morning as a ferocious sea engulfed the land. We can only hope that there will never be a tragedy like that again in our land or in any other land.