Friday, December 26, 2008


Waves of tsunami memories

Today, the Daily Mirror features 22-year-old Munira’s story, who witnessed the 2004 tsunami tragedy first hand during her holidays in Sri Lanka. An Arabic national, Munira lost her parents to the tsunami and returned to her country two weeks later with her elder brother and younger sister, where they conducted a small prayer in remembrance of her parents. Four years later, Munira has returned to the island, to visit the coastal areas of Kalutara where her parents died. Visiting the beach, she said she remembered the tragedy as it had happened yesterday.

Sunday December 26th, 2004, the day after Christmas, dawned bright and clear. The sea was calm and inviting and tourists and locals alike were enjoying the holiday scene, appreciating the hot weather, relieved to be away from the stormy cold snow in the west.

Many who had just celebrated Christams the day before, had been sleeping. After all it was a Sunday and the festive mood was still all around.

I, myself was in the south that morning, away from the busy city of Colombo which I had visited a few days ago. Booked in a hotel in Kalutara, I had just arrived in the area with my parents and siblings two days before and was hoping to return to my country the next day. However, little did I realise that the day would be the longest in my life. And little did I know that it would be the last I see of my parents.

Things that morning seemed calm. But when looking at the sea from the hotel balcony, all did not seem right. The water had moved away from the shore, revealing a lot of sand and the water in certain areas in the sea had turned into a darkish grey – a colour which I had never seen before.

The few who were strolling along the beach also kept starring at the sea. In ceratin areas some of the visitors said they even saw bubbles on the surface of water, as if something was breathing underneath.

Around 9.30 in the morning everything changed. Without warning a massive wave struck. It was big, bigger than anyone had seen. But later the sea receded altogether and many thought it was over. But little did we know that the water was preparing for another massive wave, even bigger than the first the people had just seen.

Many thought the end of the world was coming as they saw the sea they had known all their lives, disappear. They ran to the expanding beach. But the sea came back, back with such force, volume and height that it took people, houses, boats, everything in its path with it. It had left a trail of destruction in its wake.

My parents had been asleep in their ground floor room when the tsunami struck. My siblings were a little away from me and my brother screamed saying we should run to the fourth floor of the room. We did, along with several others. Once we reached the top, my brother wanted to rush back down to get my parents. He could not do as two floors of the hotel was already under water.

Then someone screamed again from the third floor saying another wave was coming. People were screaming from all corners, some saying to save them, others saying to save their children who they could not hold on to. From the glass windows, we could see people being dragged into the waves like tiny ants rushing to an open packet of sweets.

No one could stop the water and no one could think about helping each other. Furniture, television sets, fridges, carperts, everything had just been dragged out and was seen floating in the sea. The destruction has already started.

Five hours later, my brother and I were able to move towards the ground floor. Nothing was remaining. Everything had been wiped out. My parents’ room which was accessible only after a day, was empty. They had already dissappeared into the waves.

Ten days after the tsunami was struck, the people of Sri Lanka were still trying to come to terms with what happened. My siblings and I travelled the coast road from Kalutara to Hikkaduwa and returned to Colombo, without the bodies of my parents.

From a couple of miles outside Colombo, the signs of damage were visible. Small houses and bigger tourist hotels alike were either flattened completely or so badly damaged that they would have to be demolished.

A bus looked as if it had been picked up like a useless toy and wrapped around a concrete pole, boats were at the opposite side of the road from the sea, one boat was even in the middle of the bus station. A huge dredger looked as if it had been picked by a giant hand and placed about sixty metres from the sea.

The railway line was buckled and ripped up in parts and a train completely overturned. The visible destruction went on for miles. Occasionally there were little patches on the beachfront where the houses appeared to be untouched and intact, missed by the wave.

But the damage and destruction only served as a reminder of the tragic loss of life and livelihood suffered by the people. Over 30,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives in the disaster, nearly 4,000 were missing ten days later, and 834,000 people were displaced.

The smell of death and decay was everywhere. People wore masks to try to hide the constant reminder. Hotels and restaurants which escaped damage in the towns by the tsunami were closed due to the all pervasive smell.We visited Buddhist temples where people had gone for refuge and help. The generosity of the Sri Lankan people was evidenced by the constant stream of people delivering food and clothes to those left destitute. We met one woman who had lost her three children. One minute ago they were a happy family, the next minute all gone.

Her husband was trying to hide his own sense of loss by trying to console her. He had lost his livelihood, his fishing boat and they had lost their home. These losses alone were enough to create hardship but those losses were replaceable over time. They had to come to terms with rebuilding their lives without their three children.

The sense of loss was everywhere. In Hikkaduwa, a fishing town, over 4,000 people lost their lives and communities were destroyed. The bulldozers were flattening large portions of the town. A week later it would be difficult to see where the houses were on the morning of December 26th.

There was a pitiful little pile of battered chairs, broken tables, dented pots and a few bits of clothing where the bulldozers were working the salvaged remains of hundreds of households of what was once a thriving community.

The Sri Lanka government was quick to respond in the immediate aftermath of the disaster in getting bulldozers out to clear the main roads, putting in temporary bridges where the tsunami had taken them out.

Most of the main roads were opened a few days after the disaster or diversions were in place in areas which were impassable for months. Aid and assistance was getting through.

People looked to the sea for their livelihood and their entertainment.

The sea was their friend. The sea dealt them a savage blow. The glorious beaches now stay eerily empty, the fishing boats 'parked' in places never meant for boats. Four years later. survivors have tried and have begun to rebuild their lives.

Where did they start?

Observing two-minute silence today

The government has urged the people to observe a two minute silence today, by remembering all those who perished in natural disasters in Sri Lanka over the years, especially those who perished in the 2004 tsunami.

The government has urged the entire nation to observe the silence from 9.25 to 9.27 a.m.

Special police teams have been deployed to stop traffic within the specified period and those travelling would also be requested to observe the silence.

“We want the whole nation to come together within these two minutes and remember all our brothers and sisters who died in the 2004 tragedy and all other tragedies in the country,” the police said.

Acting Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Rohana Dissanayake also made a special appeal at an event held at the Disaster Management Centre earlier this week for the nation to oblige and mark the two-minute silence.

The Minister also said the National Safety Day which is commemorated today would be held in Kandy this year.

Minister Dissanayake added that if the country was to face another natural disaster like the tsunami, arrangements were in place to respond to the crisis situation swiftly and effectively.

He observed that new communications and response systems had been implemented to cope with the disaster.

The National Safety Day comes as a result of a cabinet proposal made in May 2006, and the first event marking the day was held on December 26, 2006 in Galle.

The 2007 event followed in Ratnapura. This year's event is being held at Dharmaraja College in Kandy.

Schoolgirl's geography lesson saves family

On December 26, 2004, British schoolgirl Tilly Smith, ten-year-old, sensed something was wrong while on the beach with her family. Her mind kept going back to the geography lesson Mr. Kearney gave just two weeks before she flew out to a Thai resort with her family.

“The water was swelling and kept coming in,” recalled Penny Smith, Tilly's mother. “There was froth on it like you get on the top of a beer. The sea was like a millpond before [the swelling began].”

The Smiths, from southeast England, were celebrating Christmas at Mai Khao Beach in Phuket, southern Thailand. Deadly tsunami waves were already on their way — triggered by a massive earthquake off northern Sumatra earlier that morning.

"The beach was getting smaller and smaller," said Penny Smith, 43. "I felt compelled to look, but I didn't know what was happening. Then Tilly said she'd just studied this at school — she talked about tectonic plates and an earthquake under the sea. She got more and more hysterical. In the end she was screaming at us to get off the beach."

Tilly's father, Colin Smith, 46, said other tourists on the beach were alerted by his daughter's concerns as he took Tilly and her seven-year-old sister back to the hotel swimming pool.

Penny Smith added, "I didn't know what a tsunami was, but seeing your daughter so frightened made you think something serious must be going on."

She remembers seeing a yacht being tipped vertically in the bay. "Then it was as if the entire sea came out of the water. I was screaming, 'Run!'"

The family took refuge on the third floor of their hotel. Set well back from the shore, it withstood the surge of three tsunami waves.

"Everything went in the swimming pool — beds, palm trees, the lot," Penny Smith said. "Even if you hadn't drowned, you would have been hit by something."

If they had stayed on the beach, she believes they wouldn't have made it to safety.

In the disaster's aftermath, the Smiths said, they met people from nearby resorts who had lost whole families.

Tilly Smith left back safely for her at Danes Hill School in Oxshott, Surrey, England soon after the tsunami.

A week later, she told her geography class how the sea slowly rose and started to foam, bubble, and form whirlpools before the big waves came.

"What Tilly described as happening was exactly the same as I'd shown on a video of a tsunami that hit the Hawaiian islands [in 1946]," said Andrew F. Kearney, Tilly's geography teacher.

"She saw the consequences of not acting when something strange happens."

Kearney had many hundreds of supportive e-mails from teachers around the world since Tilly's story was first reported in Britain.

"People often underrate teaching and teachers and they feel it's important to show we can make a difference," Kearney said. (National Geographic News)

Did animals sense tsunami disaster?

Before giant waves slammed into Sri Lankan and Indian coastlines on December 26, 2004, wild and domestic animals seemed to know what was about to happen and had fled to safety.

According to eyewitnesses, the following events took place:

Elephants screamed and ran for higher ground. Dogs refused to go outdoors. Flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas and zoo animals rushed into their shelters and could not be enticed to come back out.

The belief that wild and domestic animals possess a sixth sense — and know in advance when the earth was going to shake — has been around for centuries.

Wild Life experts believe animals' more acute hearing and other senses might enable them to hear or feel the earth's vibration, tipping them off to approaching disaster long before humans realise what's going on.

The massive tsunami was triggered by a sea quake of 9 on the Richter scale off the coast of Northern Sumatra island on December 26. The giant waves rolled through the Indian Ocean, killing more than 150,000 people in a dozen countries.

Relatively few animals have been reported dead, however, reviving speculation that animals somehow sense impending disaster.

Ravi Corea, President of the Sri Lanka Wild Life Conservation Society, which is based in Nutley, New Jersey, was in Sri Lanka when the massive waves struck.

He travelled later to the Patanangala beach inside Yala National Park, where some 60 visitors were washed away.

The beach was one of the worst hit areas of the 500-square-mile (1,300-square-kilometre) wild life reserve, which is home to a variety of animals, including elephants, leopards, and 130 species of birds.

Mr. Corea did not see any animal carcasses nor did the park personnel know of any, other than two water buffaloes that had died, he said.

Along India's Cuddalore coast, where thousands of people perished, the Indo-Asian News service reported that buffaloes, goats, and dogs were found unharmed.

Flamingos that breed this time of year at the Point Calimere wild life sanctuary in India flew to higher ground beforehand, the news service reported.

Accounts of strange animal behaviour have also started to surface.

About an hour before the tsunami hit, Corea said, people at Yala National Park observed three elephants running away from the Patanangala beach.

World Wild Life Fund, an organiswation that leads international efforts to protect endangered species and their habitats, has satellite collars on some of the elephants in the park.

A spokeswoman said they plan to track the elephants on that fateful day to verify whether they did move to higher ground. She doesn't know, though, when the satellite data would be downloaded and analysed.

Mr. Corea, a Sri Lankan who migrated to United States 20 years ago, said two of his friends noticed unusual animal behaviour before the tsunami.

One friend, in the southern Sri Lankan town of Dikwella, recalls bats frantically flying away just before the tsunami struck. Another friend, who lived on the coast near Galle, said his two dogs would not go for their daily run on the beach.

"They are usually excited to go on this outing," Corea said. But on this day they refused to go and most probably saved his life.

Alan Rabinowitz, director for science and exploration at the Bronx Zoo-based Wild Life Conservation Society in New York, says animals could sense impending dangers by detecting subtle or abrupt shifts in the environment.

"Earth-quakes bring vibrational changes on land and in water while storms cause electro-magnetic changes in the atmosphere," he said. "Some animals have acute sense of hearing and smell that allow them to determine something coming towards them long before humans might know that something is there."

(National Geographic News)

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