Friday, December 26, 2014

A Decade After the Boxing Day Tsunami

Do you remember what you were doing on this day in 2004?

It was, of course, the day after Christmas. I had made plans to meet my brother to see "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which had just premiered the day before.

We never really decided on a time or place to see it, though, until virtually the last minute that day. We met for lunch at a burger place and looked through the movie listings in the Dallas paper until we found a good starting time at a theater that was reasonably close. It was a Sunday, and it was kind of wet and dreary. The Cowboys were playing the Washington Redskins that afternoon, and we kind of hoped that would keep people at home in front of their TV sets, but nobody really seemed to care about the game. The Cowboys were on their way to a dismal 6–10 finish.

Consequently, my memory is that the theater was kind of full, and we wound up getting seats that were less than ideal.

Such a problem would be seen as trivial a few hours later after the world became aware of the deadly tsunami that had rolled across the Indian Ocean that day. The tsunami was triggered by an underwater earthquake that registered a magnitude of 9.3; that is only an estimate, of course, but if it is accurate, that would make it the second– or third–strongest earthquake in recorded history.

How strong is a 9.3 earthquake? The one that struck 10 years ago today is thought to have had the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima bombs. It caused at least 227,898 deaths.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, some proposed the creation of a global tsunami warning system, but because of the relative rarity of tsunamis in some areas — including the Indian Ocean, even though earthquakes are fairly common in Indonesia — a global network of sensors would be necessary, and that can be too costly for poor countries. Also, the world has so little experience with tsunamis that it would be extremely difficult to find enough people with the expertise to monitor and assess global conditions for tsunamis in the making. The first real sign of a tsunami is the earthquake itself, but if it happens far from shore, the tsunami may travel a great distance, as it did in 2004, before striking areas where the earthquake was barely felt, if at all, before it is noticed.

Tsunamis eventually reach a point where they begin to dissipate if they don't strike land, but they can still cause damage when they do; and tsunamis can be deceptive. Initially, they may resemble rising tides.

Something else to keep in mind — not all undersea earthquakes produce tsunamis. An undersea earthquake in almost the same area about three months later was estimated to be 8.7 (which would still make it one of the 15 strongest earthquakes in recorded history) but produced no tsunami.

The 2004 earthquake struck, as I recall, off the west coast of Indonesia that morning, which would have been Christmas evening here in the United States.

But, initially, no one knew what had happened, and it wouldn't become apparent to the world that anything out of the ordinary had happened until the tsunami wave had traveled across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, a journey that probably took about 10 hours.

Actually, what many people don't realize is that a tsunami is not a single wave but rather a series of waves that can come in surges separated by five minutes to an hour. The first wave is not always the most dangerous.

"A tsunami, when it approaches, is silent," observed survivor Alexa Moses, a writer from Australia, in The Age. A tsunami simply doesn't attract attention until it strikes land. The longer it takes to strike land, the more strength it can accumulate — until it reaches that point where its strength begins to diminish.

And a portion of the tsunami did strike India shortly after the earthquake, but most of it traversed the Indian Ocean unobstructed until it reached Africa.

For that matter, more than 130,000 of the casualties were in Indonesia, but not all of those deaths could be blamed on the tsunami. If you've ever seen footage of the aftermath of land–based earthquakes, you know that people die when buildings and bridges collapse, when they are struck by falling debris, etc., and it is reasonable to assume that many of the deaths in Indonesia were the result of being near the epicenter of a 9.3–magnitude earthquake.

Many deaths, of course, were the result of the tsunami, which was quite powerful in the immediate vicinity. Take a look at the link to Moses' article. You will see aerial photographs that clearly show how the topography was changed.

None of what had happened was being reported on TV as I prepared to meet my brother or on the radio as I drove to the burger place. After I got home from the movie, I saw the first reports I had seen of the destruction. It was astonishing.

It was also astonishing to see the world's response to the disaster. Relief efforts raised $14 billion. Many of the survivors of the tsunami still have a long journey in front of them, but that money made getting started on that journey less difficult.

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