26th December 2004: Tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed thousands

A huge tsunami triggered by a massive undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean killed an estimated 300,000 people in India, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia on December 26, 2004, in one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region. The hypocentre of the main earthquake, which was above 9.0 on the Richter Scale, was about 160 km in the Indian Ocean, near the coast of northern Sumatra.  

The earthquake was felt in several countries including India, Malaysia, Burma and Thailand. Aftershocks of magnitude over 6.6 were reported for another 4 months. Just three days before, an earthquake of magnitude 8.1 had struck in an unpopulated area west of New Zealand’s Auckland Islands.

A report in The Hindu the day after the tsunami struck, captured the terror in coastal southern Thailand:  “Holidays turned to disaster in southern Thailand, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to its southern beaches during the Christmas season… ‘Just out of nowhere, suddenly the streets (were) awash and people just running and screaming from the beach,’ John Hyde, a vacationing Australian state lawmaker, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television. Another tourist, Briton Simon Clark, 29, said: ‘Suddenly this huge wave came, rushing down the beach, destroying everything in its wake. People…snorkelling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people…sunbathing got washed into the sea.’”

The tsunami was caused by the sudden rise of the seabed during the earthquake which displaced very large volumes of water. Tsunami waves travel at very high speeds in the deep sea but are largely harmless. But once they near the coast, they form huge waves while slowing down. The waves in the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit the coast reportedly reached heights of upto 30 metres.

Though satellites recorded unusual wave moments in the deep ocean they could not provide warnings as they were not built for the purpose. The waves travelled as far as 2 km inland in several places.

The tsunami waves were most destructive in the east-west direction, which is why Bangladesh was spared the brunt though it is a low-lying area. On the other hand Kerala was hit by the tsunami though it is on the western coast, and Somalia, despite its distance, was hit as well. The tsunami reached the nearest coasts in 15 minutes. Other coasts were hit depending on their distance from the epicentre and the speed of the tsunami waves in that particular oceanic region.  

Though there was a gap of several hours between the earthquake and the tsunami reaching the coast in most cases, the lack of a tsunami detection and warning system in this part of the world meant the local coastal populations were unaware of the calamity that was speedily heading towards them.

Coastal Chennai was among the places hit. A woman in a fishing village off Chennai’s coast told The Hindu: “Even if a cyclone crosses the coast, we would still remain inside our huts. But this morning water just came and engulfed our homes and took away everything.”

Outlook magazine reported from the Andaman and Nicobar islands as part of its special issue on the ‘killer tsunami’: “This was once paradise. Picturesque and quiet beaches with tropical sunlight streaming through wavy leaves of tall palm trees…But on December 26, they lost this idyllic paradise. Five days after Black Sunday, when the killer tsunami came and ravaged the Nicobar group of islands, the coastline has changed,” the report said. “There is a pall of gloom and the smell of death on the once-pristine stretches of sand…On ground zero, aftershocks send panic waves among the remaining inhabitants. The air is full of rumours of one more tsunami coming in to strike…Sitting on the tarmac in the baking sun in their hundreds awaiting evacuation, the future looks bleak.”  

Besides the local populations, hundreds of vacationing tourists died in the tsunami in various parts of Asia. It would take survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami years to get back their lives on track, with aid agencies from around the world helping with the rehabilitation efforts.

But for those who lost loved ones, their world changed forever. In her memoir Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost her husband and two sons in the tsunami but herself miraculously survived while the family was holidaying in Sri Lanka, recalls the time just after she was rescued: “Someone suggested I take a sleeping pill. I refused the pill. If I sleep now I will forget. I will forget what happened. I will wake believing everything is fine. I will reach for Steve, I will wait for my boys. Then I will remember. And that will be too awful. That I must not risk.”

Also on this day:

1899 — Udham Singh, Indian revolutionary who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, was born  

1914 — Baba Amte, Indian social worker and activist, was born  

1973 — Nikhil Chopra, Indian cricketer, was born

1989 —Shankar, legendary Indian cartoonist, passed away

1999 — Shankar Dayal Sharma, ninth President of India, passed away

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