Reminiscing the Tsunami

Memories always linger… It was at the northern-most tip of New Zealand this day five years ago that I found myself staring at the front page of a local newspaper that just had a picture of destruction and one word strapped across the columns in bold black lettering: TSUNAMI, it said.



By Rahul Sharma (Random Thoughts)

Published: Sun 27 Dec 2009, 9:31 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:50 AM

I remember almost dropping the tray of coffee cups and a packet of doughnuts that was meant to be the family breakfast on a windy, cloudy and cold day at Paihia, a small access town to the Bay of Islands where the frothing, angry Pacific Ocean meets a much calmer Sea of Tasman. Far from where I stood another ocean had boiled over after an underwater earthquake, sending massive waves to as far as Africa and killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying property worth billions of dollars in a matter of hours.

The earth had rung like a bell after the 9.2 magnitude quake that lasted 10 minutes, sending a 100-ft high wall of water crashing into Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, before waves travelled across the Indian Ocean at speeds of up to 800 kilometre per hour to smash into as far as Somalia seven hours later. Three hundred people died in that country. The quake, which broke a 1,600 kilometre-long section of the fault where the India tectonic plate sits below the Sunda plate, had released energy equivalent to 23,000 bombs of the kind dropped over Hiroshima in 1945!

On its way the waves had played havoc in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles — 13 countries in all — killing 226,000 people, displacing 1.8 million and causing economic and infrastructure damage worth an estimated $11 billion. Bodies of 50,000 people were never found

A natural disaster of this magnitude had never been seen and one hopes it would not be in the future. When I got to Sri Lanka to write about the impact on my return from my New Zealand holiday, the memories were still fresh. Broken houses along the coasts, thousands of displaced in camps along the country’s east and a rusted train that had rolled over many times and killed hundreds when hit by huge waves as it travelled from Colombo to the country’s south on the fateful day.

I remember flying in a helicopter with aid officials to the eastern coast, much of which was still under the control of Tamil rebels, to see long stretches of white sands and broken trees in areas once inhabited by people – many of them swept away into the ocean with their homes. At camps, where people mourning their losses lived in makeshift structures and tents, frightened children spoke of their parents being washed away – they life destroyed forever. The sight of a young orphan girl, clutching her small brother, and walking around aimlessly still haunts.

So do stories of people pulled into the water while sunbathing on beaches after late-night Christmas parties. Husbands, wives, children, relatives, friends — all were lost and that loss to them is till fresh. Many had hung on palm trees as waves hit the coastal areas and monks at a Buddhist monastery near where the train overturned told of the screams of the scores who died. There was pain and there was politics over the billions pledged in aid.

At the Galle port, ships were thrown out of the water and were sitting on land – looking forlorn and very out of place. Fishermen were still wary and had stories to tell about how the water was warm just before the tsunami struck. Those out at sea felt little as energy travelled below them to hit the landmass before turning into massive walls of water. Many were shocked to see their homes and families destroyed when they returned to the shore later in the day. Colleagues, who travelled to other countries — especially Indonesia — in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, had even more horrifying stories to tell.

Watching television yesterday, as relatives prayed during solemn remembrance ceremonies in countries hit by the tsunami, the memories of the agony, pain and loss came rolling back. It is never easy to cover events in which people die in such large numbers. The mental impact is always bigger than what one realises at that time. It all comes back later to haunt, and in cases stays on for longer than desired. The good part, however, is that we as people move on to rebuild our lives, businesses and relations. That is important because it means we have come to terms with an event that would continue to haunt hundreds of thousands others who haven’t been able to close the chapter.

In the years since the tsunami, the world has moved on, lives and homes have been rebuilt, new technologies and multilateral cooperation has ensured that there is a proper warning system in place for a future potential catastrophe. As we mark the fifth anniversary of what is the biggest disaster to hit the world in recent times, there are good reasons to believe that another such event might be waiting to hit us sometime. The problem is that despite all our efforts we can never prepare ourselves for the unknown.

Rahul Sharma is Editor of Khaleej Times. He can be reached at rahul@khaleejtimes.com


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