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January 4, 2005 > Tsunami - An unbelievable devastation

Tsunami - An unbelievable devastation

by Arathi Satish

No one saw it coming. The devastating tsunami, triggered by a 9.0 earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean island of Sumatra on Sunday, December 26, 2004, killed tens of thousands of people and left many more missing in South and Southeast Asia. The earthquake set off a tsunami, a seismically-generated ocean wave that traveled at a speed of 500 mph and crashed into the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Maldives and all the way to the east coast of Africa.

The death toll is now over 100,000 and flood-related diseases will give rise to many more deaths. The waters that swept away thousands of people, their homes and livelihood, spewed back some of their bodies and possessions back onto the beaches. Heart rendering scenes unfolded as surviving relatives and friends started the search among the dead to find their loved ones and friends.

Tsunami, a Japanese word meaning "wave in port," is one or a series of waves that occur after an earthquake, seaquake, volcanic activity, slumps or meteorite impacts in or near the sea. The energy of a tsunami is constant, a function of its height and speed. As the wave approaches land, its height increases and speed decreases. As the wave travels at high speed they are more or less unnoticed while crossing deep waters, but the height can increase to more than 30 meters as they approach the coastline, causing severe destruction. Researchers are still trying to analyze what really happened on that fateful Sunday. Taking into consideration previous giant quakes in the region, it is felt that the quake pushed up the bottom of the ocean by a couple of yards resulting in the bulge of water on the surface that rippled out in all directions. This is the fourth quake to strike in the Sumatran subduction zone since 1797.

Although a tsunami cannot be stopped once it has been triggered, warnings can be issued if the ocean is well instrumented with seismic detectors. The International Tsunami Information Center, established in 1965 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations, helps to improve tsunami preparedness and focuses on nations that border the pacific. Unfortunately, countries bordering the Indian Ocean have virtually no early-warning system. Even though experts in different parts of the world sensed the earthquake immediately, news never reached the coastal communities where the tsunami struck out in all its fury due to the slowness and protocol of bureaucracy and lack of communication. After the tragedy occurred, authorities in different countries are trying to take steps to prevent future happenings. Although India has only one satellite radio system (World Space) operating currently, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has taken its first steps toward framing regulations for satellite radio stations.

The number of dead people is steadily increasing every day. Thousands are still unaccounted for. India has estimated more than 11,000 deaths so far, Indonesia more than 80,000, Sri Lanka about 27,000, Thailand around 5,000 and hundreds of others from other nations in the Indian Ocean region including those in eastern Africa.

As the silence of death hangs heavily in the air, hundreds of bodies are still buried under the sand along the city's beaches. Officials and residents wearing surgical masks trying to ward off the smell of rotting corpses are worried about the spread of disease. Health officials have started collecting dead bodies and burying them in mass graves, sometimes before they can be even identified. Many of the dead include children, women and elderly people who were unable to run fast enough to reach safe spots. Victims in the different countries hit by the tsunami include people from America, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, Britain, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Holland, Finland, Switzerland, Spain, Russia, Turkey and Norway.

Among the devastation there were some miracles. Michael Rametta and his brother Andrew from Melbourne met each other in Bangkok, Thailand after being separated. Annal Mary's 20-day-old baby Suppiah Tulasi survived the tsunami by floating on a mattress in Penang, Malaysia. Compared to the devastation, miracles were indeed few in number.

The hardest hit areas have been the poor fishing community. In Sri Lanka alone, more than 1.5 million homes have been damaged or destroyed. In Cuddalore, India, surviving fishing families who ventured back to their villages found their homes washed away. The rebuilding of villages and the lives of the survivors will require the collective efforts of people and governments all over the world as the tsunami hit countries that do not have the resources to do it on their own.

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