Tsunamis Devastate Southeast Asia

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on January 10, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

ON THE ASSEMBLY line of tragedy that was the Sri Lankan coast last week, residents of Kalmunai were enduring a special kind of hell.

Tsunamis Devastate Southeast Asia

ON THE ASSEMBLY line of tragedy that was the Sri Lankan coast last week, residents of Kalmunai were enduring a special kind of hell. As if the near obliteration of their seaside village wasn't enough, survivors returned to their ruined town to find older, long-buried human remains mixed among the recently deceased - under capsized fishing boats, inside collapsed houses and pinned beneath shattered chunks of wharf. "The town's burial grounds are all near the ocean," explains 40-year-old Jiffry Uthumalebbe, a Torontonian raised in Kalmunai. When the giant waves came, he says, they disinterred corpses of local people who had been laid to rest generations ago, throwing all the bodies onto higher ground. "Now," he says, "they have to be sorted out."

Among the newly dead: a staggering 11 members of Uthumalebbe's extended family, who were caught unaware as the earthquake-driven surge steamrolled an uncle's house, located just a few metres from the shoreline. His brother, mother and father, who live in a different home, were able to escape. "But my mother won't go back," he says. "She knows that if she opens a door, there's a good chance there'll be a body behind it."

Such is the nature of the calamity unfolding in South Asia: just when the horror reaches incomprehensible proportions, fate delivers more, making prospects of recovery seem like a distant dream. The disaster, caused by a 9-magnitude EARTHQUAKE centred in the southeast Indian Ocean, already counts as one of the worst in history, dwarfing any others known to have been caused by TSUNAMIS. The killer waves battered a wide area that included the south shore of India, Myanmar, even the east coast of Africa. At week's end, the death toll was predicted to surpass 125,000 (next worse, by comparison, was a series of waves that struck Portugal after an earthquake in 1755, killing an estimated 60,000). Some 80,000 were lost in Indonesia, along with another 27,300 in Sri Lanka and 7,500 in India. Jet-setters vacationing in Thailand's sun-drenched playground of Phuket survived by clinging to palm trees, while untold thousands in northern Sumatra were engulfed in their homes. Many victims had no idea what hit them.

Aid organizations and the international community know their job now - sorting corpses; burying the dead; finding homes for orphaned children. The question is where to start. "It's just enormous," says Roger Markowski, humanitarian program co-ordinator for Oxfam International, speaking from Medan, Sumatra. "Money is no longer the issue. We now have to look at the best possible means to help these people." In parts of Indonesia, he notes, the force of the waves wiped out entire communities, killing tens of thousands and leaving still more displaced. Meulaboh, a town of 120,000 on Sumatra's northern tip, was thought to have been obliterated, with an estimated 40,000 dead, meaning relief workers will have to start a community from scratch, as bulldozers dig mass graves nearby. "To go there," says Markowski, a Montrealer, "you have to be very strong psychologically."

Under the best of circumstances, getting help to the affected regions will be tough. Many communities simply lack the roads and airstrips to support a major aid effort, while other places, like northern Sri Lanka, have been riven by long-running civil wars, which have a way of turning crises into political footballs. Until last Tuesday - two days after the tsunamis hit - humanitarian groups and journalists were still barred from Sumatra's western Aceh province, where the Indonesian government has been waging a three-decade war against rebels. Add the damage wrought by the waves, and you have an uneasy guessing game: dozens of towns were cut off as the water wiped out roads and phone lines, so relief workers must now reach them to determine the extent of the damage. "This isn't something like a hurricane, where people have some notice, and are able to prepare," says Suzanne Charest, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Red Cross. "That's what makes this case exceptional, and the level of destruction in some countries - the death toll - it's really quite unbearable."

If there's good news, it's the sudden abundance of cash to fund relief efforts. After initially offering token amounts, western governments have opened up their treasuries as the true scale of the disaster emerged. The $123 million pledged by the international community early in the week steadily ballooned in ensuing days, with Ottawa kicking in $40 million, putting a moratorium on debt owed by tsunami-hit countries, and promising to match dollar-for-dollar donations made to NGOs over and above the $40 million. Aid organizations were swamped with donations, including some $14 million to the Canadian Red Cross and lesser amounts to organizations like Oxfam, World Vision and the Salvation Army. At a Toronto Tamil radio station, children arrived with piggy banks, helping raise some $250,000 intended for northern Sri Lanka. "We're not even a charity, so we can't give receipts," says Ilayabharathy Sivasothy, chief executive of the Canadian Tamil Broadcasting Corporation. "So this is really remarkable."

Politics, as ever, has reared its head where aid is concerned. Sivasothy stresses that his station is directing its money to the north because it expects the Sri Lankan government, dominated by southern Sinhalese, to withhold aid money from northern Tamils. "We've been fighting this government 30 years," he says. "If you give them the money, they're going to take care of their own." With these tensions in mind, Red Cross, Oxfam and World Vision officials say they're determined their portion of the aid will reach the needy to supply potable water, antibiotics and latrines. And in a positive sign, the Indonesian government declared a ceasefire with its rebels, allowing relief agencies to move into the region - a deal that could prove pivotal if it holds. UN officials are planning a New Year's appeal they say could exceed US$1.6 billion. The truce will help reassure countries who doubt their money is reaching those who need it most.

No amount of funds, however, can ease the anguish of families around the world waiting for word from love ones. Uthumalebbe is among scores of Toronto-area Sri Lankans who worked the phones in hopes of contacting family last week, while others sought word from relatives who'd been vacationing in Southeast Asia. In a few cases, the news was tragic: by press time, Foreign Affairs officials had confirmed the deaths of four Canadians, with as many as 85 missing or unaccounted for. Some may never be found, a federal government source acknowledged in an interview with Maclean's: given the health threat posed by the decaying bodies, it's possible that remains will be buried before they are identified. "If Thai authorities have the impression from the appearance of a body that it is a tourist, we're told they will most likely set it aside for identification," the source said. "But you can understand the position they're in."

Many of those who did survive have contacted relatives with tales ranging from the inspirational to the outright bizarre. Doug and Joan Glover of Trail, B.C., read with disbelief an email sent by their 35-year-old son, Mike, who was on his way to Krabi, Thailand, when the waves tossed his taxi into a construction site. "The car tipped about 45 degrees onto a retaining wall with a bunch of pieces of rebar sticking out of the top," Glover said in his message. "One of them punched through the cab door and into my side." When the water receded, he said, the car righted itself and the steel bar snapped off - part of it still in Glover's midriff. Fortunately, it punctured only skin and fatty tissue. After a long wait at a nearby hospital, a doctor removed the bar and stitched him up.

Mark VanderKam of Kitchener, Ont., narrowly escaped the tsunamis while kayaking in southern Thailand near Phi Phi Island, an area made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach. The 42-year-old executive of a high-tech company had seen the surge building several kilometres out to sea, yet didn't believe his eyes. By blind luck, he went ashore to buy some sunblock and was able to escape the waves. "I missed being caught by just minutes, as did my friends," he said in an email from the resort area of Ao Nang, where he was staying. "That earthquake was probably building pressure for thousands of years. If it had let go 10 minutes sooner, I would not be writing this account right now."

Such stories circulated madly last week, powered in large part by the Web. But it was also the Internet that put faces to the tragedy, because for every close call there seemed to be a weblog bearing photos of the missing, along with family members' pleas for information on their whereabouts. These pages - littered with the smiles of the departed - served as reminders of how close a cataclysmic event on the other side of the Earth can seem in an age of global travel and satellite communication. The waves wrought by last week's earthquake might have stopped on Asian shores, but their impact has registered around the world.


On Dec. 23, Mark VanderKam arrived in Thailand for what he hoped would be the trip of a lifetime. Little did he know how true that would be. At the time the tsunamis struck, VanderKam, vice-president of sales and marketing for a Kitchener, Ont.-based high-tech company serving the pension industry, was kayaking near the southern town of Ao Nang. He sent Maclean's his story:

ALL NIGHT I felt this great sense of urgency that I needed to get on the water as early as possible. Normally I try to sleep in when I'm dealing with jet lag, but this time I set the alarm (I bought it on a whim before leaving Canada) for 6:30 a.m. - 1 ½ hours before the earthquake. I was on the water a little after 8. I soon decided I needed another tube of sunblock. I was annoyed, but decided to land at a world-famous beach and rock-climbing centre called Railay Beach. The decision probably saved my life.

When I got there, I saw what looked like a giant wave around four kilometres offshore. I shook my head and assumed I must be imagining things. Then the entire bay suddenly drained of water with a loud roar. I knew what was about to happen - I'd studied the phenomenon of tsunamis and have always been aware of the danger whenever I have travelled near the ocean. I looked for an escape route and saw a road leading up a hill. Confident I could get away if necessary, I then went back to the beach with my waterproof camera.

A wall of water around five metres high was moving up the bay. A motor cruiser maybe 1 ½ km offshore went straight up in the air on the wave. Four boats used to shuttle tourists were left in the bay. About 40 people jumped out onto the exposed sea bottom and ran for safety as the wave destroyed those vessels. A few seconds later it hit shore and rushed into buildings as everyone ran up the hill. Then the bay was once again sucked dry. Soon after, a second and larger wave arrived, and destroyed more buildings on the beach. After this, several smaller waves hit, and over the next eight hours the bay repeatedly drained and then refilled, each cycle more gentle than the last.

About an hour after the first wave, a group of hikers appeared along the exposed rocks. The bay had just emptied again, and people were screaming at them to run, assuming another large wave would come. The hikers rescued a kayaker who had been out with his family and was badly scraped up. He told me that when the sea went out, his group still had a few feet of water to float on, but were helpless as the wave came in. He survived, but didn't know where his family was. Three hours later, a second member of his party arrived back at shore; somehow this woman had managed to swim and walk to safety. But the waves had torn off her clothes and she had a deep gash in her thigh. How she managed to avoid bleeding to death while walking over sharp coral seemed downright miraculous. I located a paramedic from Canmore, Alta. - also miraculous - who tended to her. The woman told me she had tried to save her mother after the first wave, but the second wave pulled them apart and her mother had drowned. Her sister was missing and presumed dead.

Around 5 p.m., I headed back to Ao Nang. My hotel was partly destroyed, but I received word that a friend I had been expecting was in town, so I went to locate her. She had been on nearby Phi Phi Island, sailing with her two children and other family and friends, but had left that morning alone on the 9 a.m. ferry. The earthquake had already happened, but there were no tsunami warnings. The ferry landed in Krabi, some five kilometres from Railay Beach, 10 minutes late and just a few minutes before the wave hit. She was the first passenger off the boat, and got in the first taxi. As in my case, she missed being caught by mere minutes.

Phi Phi Island was devastated. A huge wave destroyed the first two floors of the hotels and swept away more than 200 bungalows. The boats in the harbour were wrecked. It was impossible to get word on whether my friend's family had escaped. We found out more than 30 hours later they had left just minutes before the wave, and the tsunami passed under then harmlessly. Another miracle, in this time of terrible tragedy.

WAVES OF MASS DESTRUCTION: Just when the horror seemed to reach incomprehensible proportions, fate delivered even more

ON MARCH 27, 1964, even if B.C. residents knew that neighbouring Alaska had just had a major earthquake, they likely had no inkling of what was headed their way. The quake, the largest to strike North America, released energy the equivalent of 12,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs as it reshaped the ocean floor. This massive change generated an enormous tsunami, which eventually spread out from Prince William Sound and across the Pacific Ocean. In 4 ½ hours, the wave train, or series of waves, had travelled 1,800 km from its epicentre 130 km southeast of Anchorage. As it sped down the west coast of Vancouver Island, it caused relatively little damage until it reached the Alberni Inlet. There, two-thirds down the island, the waves piled up in the narrowing waterway and, travelling at 360 km/h up the channel, smashed into Port Alberni. The second of the six waves to hit was the most damaging, cresting three metres above the high tide mark. Nobody was killed, although damage to property and industry amounted to some $10 million (1964 dollars).

Today, it's far less likely that such a tsunami could take B.C. by surprise. The Alaska quake led to the establishment in 1967 of the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. British Columbia also receives timely warning about any potentially dangerous tsunamis from the Hawaii-based International Tsunami Warning Center, which works closely with the UN's Intergovernmental Co-ordination Group.

The devastating phenomena are also the subject of reams of scientific study. Although once known as "tidal waves," they are unrelated to the tides, and in the 1960s the Japanese word tsunami, which means "harbour wave," was widely adopted. The waves are generated when a disturbance of the earth's crust - volcanoes and landslides, as well as earthquakes - displaces water. Waves formed as a result then radiate outward in concentric rings.

Scientists can determine how fast a tsunami moves. In deep open water, the waves can travel at more than 800 km/h, and over large distances without great loss of energy. In 1960, a 9.5-magnitude earthquake off Chile generated a tsunami that caused destruction in Japan. As tsunamis approach shore, they slow down, but the height of the waves increases. Still, unlike some artistic images of tsunamis, they usually come in as a rapid rise in the water level, not as giant walls of turbulent water.

Tsunamis have been generated in all of the world's oceans and inland seas. (Seismic waves from an earthquake can even create water-level oscillations, known as seiches, in faraway enclosed lakes and lagoons.) Scientists have recently determined that a giant underwater sediment slide generated a large tsunami in the Norwegian and North Seas about 7,100 years ago. In 1692, an earthquake shook Jamaica, resulting in a tsunami that wiped out the town of Port Royal. And in 1929, an offshore earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, killing 27.

Most tsunamis occur in the Pacific. Not only does that ocean cover more than one-third of the Earth's surface, it is surrounded by the "ring of fire" - the most geologically active area on the planet. Part of it lies off the B.C. coast, where the eastward-moving Juan de Fuca tectonic plate meets the westward-moving North American plate. While scientists have a better understanding of the forces at work, they still have no way of predicting when the next big earthquake will occur. They can only say how long it will take for any resulting tsunami to reach shore.


Maclean's January 10, 2005