75. The Cruel Sea – the Indian Ocean tsunami

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson – American poet, lecturer and essayist (1803-1882).

“We have very little control over external forces such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, disasters, illness and pain. What really matters is …. How do I respond to those disasters ? Over that I have complete control.”
Leo F. Buscaglia – American guru and Professor at the University of Southern California (1924-1998).

“An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain – the equality of all men.”
Ignazio Silone – Italian author and earthquake orphan (1900-1978).

(Photos © AP, AFP, Getty Images)

If ever there were a week for new perspectives, then this is it.

I was driving along the M1 when I heard about the tsunami, with a car full of Christmas presents, headed for yet another family gathering. It was evening, and the tidal waves had already run their course of devastation over the Indian Ocean during the previous night. A path of destruction and terror had opened up across South East Asia during seven short hours whilst we had been sleeping off the festivities of the day before.

Amidst our celebrations, no one had turned on the radio or TV all day. And now, there was no other news to broadcast. There hasn’t really been any other news since.

The horror has grown, throughout all of the days in between. The reports initially focused on Thailand, because so many British tourists there had been in contact with families back home. And because so many of them hadn’t. Spectacular pictures, of waves rising slowly out of the sea, far beyond tranquil tropical beaches. A silent and innocent beauty at first, so clearly mystifying and mesmerising the onlookers on the beach, before reaping a deadly whirlwind along the shore. There was no time to run. Surely the best and closest images, of the biggest waves, must lie within the broken cameras of so many people now dead.

As the days have passed, the focus has gradually shifted. To Sri Lanka, where the coastline was devastated, and more thousands lost. And then, ever so slowly, the first terrible pictures began to trickle out of Sumatra, of the apocalypse that had transpired in Banda Aceh. The footage that sticks with me most was taken at a wedding. Filming of a bridal party which was suddenly interrupted by the rise of a five-metre-high boiling black tide, swirling to engulf the streets below, as well as absolutely everything, and everybody within them. A family celebration like so many others across the world this week, and yet with such a terrifying finale.

Then we began to hear from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the authorities had refused outside assistance, surely unaware of the scale of the devastation and suffering which had played out there. And now, hellish scenes from the outlying towns and villages of Sumatra, a blankly brown coastal plain wiped clean of all but the faintest memory of human habitation, the forested hillsides tens of metres above ravaged by the knife-like scar of the water’s cut.

There is simply no power on earth like the power of our planet. Even the biggest news story of the last two years, the war in Iraq, has largely disappeared from our screens for a while, struggling to match the scale of these other Asian killing fields. If human error has taken two whole years to kill 100 000 people in Iraq, then it must be humbling for even the most bellicose of our kind to see that Nature can kill 100 000 in the Far East within a few minutes, and as many again across the ocean within barely a few hours to follow. And that ruthless death, that savage screenplay of suffering, is not merely a matter of hours or days. It continues even now, as I write, and as you read this text. Aftershocks which will impact myriads of lives for years, and decades to come.

If any encouragement is to emerge from this disaster, then surely we must appreciate how almost unthinkably fantastic it is at last, to see our governments so fully engaged in matching the generosity of their citizens. Repeatedly, in so many countries across the world, we have seen this past week how the warmth of the human spirit, of any human spirit, can far outstrip the instincts of our leaders, and can catalyse the greater good. It is marvellous to see the western military enthusiastically committed to this, the biggest relief operation ever mounted. Maybe we should expect no less in future from our soldiers, sailors, airmen and government officials. And with time, we may even expect more. For if they have not always waged war in the name of every citizen, then now at least they can bring aid to the stricken, on behalf of each and every one of us.

Perhaps it would be naïve to think, as The Independent dares to suggest, that a catastrophe on this scale really can change the world for the better. Or to believe, as one reporter earnestly wrote, that this spectacularly cinematographic demonstration of natural destruction will help to awaken the world to the wider environmental threats hanging over each of us and over all of our children. But perhaps this is indeed the time to hope, right now, for all of these things.

Because truly, if ever there were a week to change perspectives, then this is it.

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2 responses to “75. The Cruel Sea – the Indian Ocean tsunami

  1. Many a time, tidal waves and tsunami are confused.

  2. Thanks, Thom. Tsunami have historically been called ‘tidal waves’ in English. In a strictly literal sense, though, this is misleading since tsunami aren’t caused by tides, but rather by seismic activity.

    Nevertheless, the Japanese term ‘tsunami’ literally means ‘harbour wave’, and of course tsunami are by no means confined to harbours — they strike all along the coast, as the recent Japan tsunami of 11 March 2011 so devastatingly demonstrated.

    The truth is that both terms are well embedded in our daily language.

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