Jakarta, January 18, 2005 (Islam Online - IOL) - The weather was quite fine on the morning of Sunday, December 26, 2004, in Meulaboh, Aceh, Indonesia’s northern-most province. It was almost 8.00 a.m. local time. Suddenly, a strong earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale shocked the inhabitants.
When the quake calmed down, the people were amazed to see that the water had drawn back as far as 500 meters from the coastline. The newly exposed area was sandy and full of floundering fish.
The villagers had never seen such a view before in their life. “We were very happy when we saw thousands of fish lying in the sand. So, many of us, including dozens of children, ran to the sandy area to collect the fish,” said Atuk, 55, a survivor of the disaster in Aceh.
About 10 to 15 minutes later, amidst the “fish harvest” festivity, a huge white wave was suddenly spotted approaching the beach. In seconds, the people were swallowed up by waves approximately 20 meters high. Darmawan, 40, who survived the tsunami after being adrift and buffeted in the sea for 24 hours, told Indonesia’s news agency ANTARA that, “I saw my village was drowned under water. I thought that the doomsday had come.”
Meulaboh, located on the western coast of Sumatra, had a population of around 200,000 people. The tsunami, which was triggered by a very strong undersea earthquake, killed over 16,000 people and destroyed over 80 percent of the infrastructure and houses in Meulaboh alone. More than 50,000 people in this village were left homeless and isolated from the rest of the world: its entire infrastructure of roads, airports, and piers were destroyed. The only way to help the people was by dropping food, drinking water, and clothes from helicopters.
The Province of Aceh is the worst hit by the tsunami because the epicenter of the quake in the Indian Ocean was just about 149 km off Meulaboh’s south coast. Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono declared three days of national mourning and asked the people to fly flags at half mast. “The death toll in Aceh and North Sumatra’s provinces has reached over 95,000 people and at least 77,000 others are still missing,” Dr. Naydial Roesdal, a senior official of the Indonesian Ministry of Health, told the press on Saturday, January 9, 2005. In Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, the death toll stood at over 15,000 people and over 60 percent of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed.
Roesdal, who chairs the center for health management crisis in Aceh and North Sumatra, said that the exact figure of people who died due to the tsunami was still unknown, pending the completion of recovering victims as there were still unclaimed bodies scattered in remote areas. Up to Monday January 10, 2005, Indonesian and foreign volunteers were working hard to remove bodies from rivers and from under the debris.
The death toll of the tsunami in 11 countries was around 155,279 people, while thousands of people are still missing. At least a third of the total victims were children. “The catastrophe injured at least 4,102 people who are still under medical treatment at different hospitals, mostly floating and field hospitals. Some of the injured people, especially children, have been moved to Jakarta for intensive care,” said Dr. Roesdal. Temporary hospitals were established with the help of a number of other countries such as Malaysia, Russia, Australia, France, China, Jordan, Singapore, Tunisia and Egypt. The Indonesian government’s data put the number refugees in Aceh at around 605,898 people accommodated in more than 50 camp locations. The number of casualties is expected to increase. “Many of the refugees are suffering from diarrhea, fevers, skin irritations, respiratory infections, headaches, stomach, and lung problems,” explained Indonesia’s Health Minister Fadilah Supari.
Outbreaks of diseases are likely due to contaminated water, poor sanitation, and lack of nutrition. Many of the refugees, especially children, suffer from serious lung problems due to contaminated seawater that they swallowed when struggling to survive the killer waves. With the help of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Indonesian Health Ministry has been conducting immunization for around 10,000 child refugees. India reported that UNICEF has planned to immunize 100,000 children in Tamil Nadu and 15,000 children in Kerala, as part of an emergency immunization campaign in tsunami-hit regions. “Measles is a deadly threat to children living in crowded camps,” said Dr Marzio Babile, UNICEF’s chief of health in India. “It spreads quickly, killing children, or severely weakens their immune systems. Those children are then too weak to fight off other diseases, leading to more deaths. We can head it off with a good round of immunization and Vitamin A,” he said as quoted by PTI. Similar health problems were also reported in Sri Lanka.
Given the fact that thousands of children are traumatized and orphaned, Indonesian doctors, psychologists and pediatricians are very concerned with the children’s mental health after the tragedy. “A psychological counseling unit will be established in all refugee camps to help those who are still in a state of shock after the disaster,” said Minister Supari. Many of the children are separated from their families and have nightmares. They cannot go to school because almost all schools in the tsunami-hit regions in Aceh and North Sumatra were completely destroyed. Around 1,143 teachers were reportedly killed.
The Indonesian government with the help of social workers have pledged to take care of the children separated from families or orphaned, and protect them from any kind of exploitation such as child trafficking.
Devastation of Marine Life
The gigantic waves did not only bring devastation to the land area but also to the marine life in South Asian seas. Marine experts estimated that it would take centuries for the marine life such as coral reefs, mangroves, and fish, to recover. A major problem would be a loss of fish displaced from their habitat by the waves, and other species that depended on the reefs. Jerker Tamelander, regional marine program co-coordinator for South and Southeast Asia with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was quoted by AFP as saying, “Damage to the marine ecosystem could be very, very serious.”
In many areas hit by the tsunami, mangroves, which protect the shore from erosion and often serve as nurseries for young fish, would have been completely uprooted and destroyed. DPA, a German news agency, reported from Paris recently that according to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the deadly waves have also damaged a number of World Heritage sites. Among the affected sites are the old city of Galle and its fortifications in Sri Lanka; the monuments at Mahabalipuram and the Temple of the Sun at Konarak, both in India; and large parts of Sumatra’s national park, as well as a large part of the island’s tropical forest.
Amazingly, many animals seem to have been able to avoid the powerful natural disaster, thanks to acoustic senses that are far more advanced than humans’, say French zoologists. Aerial pictures of Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, broadcast on international TV news channels, show it was penetrated by surging floodwater. But there were no signs of any dead elephants, leopards, deer, jackals, or crocodiles—the species that have given the conservation reserve worldwide fame. Animals have capabilities to sense any vibrations, seismic shocks, or sound waves, which human beings do not, said Herve Fritz, a researcher in animal behavior at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). “Elephants have infrasound communication—low-frequency noise, usually below 20 Hertz—that is below the human threshold of hearing. They can pick up these sounds at very great distances, dozens of kilometers away,” he explained as reported by AFP. Group animals like elephants, deer, and birds, also have efficient “alarm codes”—special cries, which enable the whole community to flee when danger is spotted,” said Gauthier. Thanks to these senses, in Thailand, several tourists were saved who were on the back of elephants a few minutes before the disaster. The elephants made a strange cry and then ran, with the tourists still on their backs, to a higher place.
Elephants, which live in Sumatra, Thailand, and India, are now reportedly being mobilized to help clean up the debris and remove the dead bodies in the devastated areas.
Early warning system
The tsunami struck without warning to the countries hit by the disaster, but actually, it was not undetected. Seismologists monitoring the Pacific Ocean recorded Sunday’s undersea earthquake near Indonesia, but warnings of tidal waves did not reach the coastal areas around the Indian Ocean.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the International Tsunami Information Center, both in Hawaii, detected the December 26 earthquake off Indonesia that generated the tsunami. But the centers were set up to provide alerts to Pacific nations, and scientists were not able to contact countries in the path of the giant waves, which experts say could travel across oceans at up to 800 kilometers (496 miles) an hour. As a result, they lost the chance to alert some of the worst hit areas hours before the tsunamis hit.
US Geological Survey geophysicist Ken Hudnut told AFP that there was sufficient time between the time of the quake and the time of the tsunamis hitting some of the affected areas to have saved many lives if a proper warning system had been in place. Several countries agreed on the establishment of an Indian Ocean tsunami-monitoring network to mirror the Honolulu-based system already covering the Pacific. Japan announced it would establish a tsunami-warning center in Tokyo covering the northwestern Pacific from Siberia to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, where 2,200 people were killed by a tidal wave in 1998. Japan even expressed its willingness to help establish the tsunami early warning systems in several Indian Ocean countries. “Tsunamis rarely hit the Indian Ocean, and so there is not much data available. Therefore, there was very little awareness. Tsunamis are far more common in the Pacific, which lies in the so-called “Ring of Fire” of geological hotspots,” explained Hudnut.
The tsunami on December 26 is believed to be the first in the Indian Ocean since 1883, associated with the famous eruption of Krakatoa between Sumatra and Java. A Pacific warning system was established in 1949 after a tsunami killed 149 in Hawaii. It uses seismic monitoring and tidal gauges to predict the destination and severity of tidal waves. Public warnings are issued via coastal sirens, television and radio bulletins, and even SMS messages in some countries.
Meanwhile, talks about setting up a warning system similar to the one in the Pacific Ocean will be conducted further at the UN-sponsored World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, next month, according to Dr Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. “Thousands of lives could have been saved if a similar alert system to that in the Pacific Ocean had been in place in the stricken countries, which include Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India,” Kong said. Learning the lesson from the tragedy, Minister of Communication M. Hatta Rajasa told a local TV station recently that Indonesia plans to put as many warning boards as possible on the country’s beaches, reminding the people to “beware of a change of the seawater level. When the water suddenly ‘dries up’ extremely, run to higher places. Tsunami waves might come.”
§ ANTARA, 2005: “Doomsday in Meulaboh Follows Fish Festivity”
§ AFP, 2005: “Marine Life Could Take Centuries to Recover From Killer Waves.”
§ PTI, 2005: “UNICEF to Launch Emergency Immunization Campaign in Kerala.”
§ ANTARA, 2005: “Tsunami-related death toll in Aceh and N. Sumatra reaches 95,000.”
§ AFP, 2004: “Scientists: Indian Ocean tsunami warning system would have saved lives.”
§ DPA, 2004: “Tsunamis damaged numerous world heritage sites, UNESCO says.”
§ Reuters, 2005: “U.N. Fears for ‘Tsunami Generation’ of children.”
§ AFP, 2005: “The Great Wave: How Did So Many Animals Escape?”
§ ANTARA, 2005: “Kofi Annan appeals to donor countries to be consistent within their aid pledges.”
** Hani’ Mumtazah is an environmental journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She graduated from a three-year English language non-decree program at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta. She attended the Non-Aligned News Agencies Journalism Course in New Delhi, India, in 1987. Comments and suggestions may be forwarded to her by contacting the editor at: ScienceTech@islam-online.net.