The events of December 26, 2004, in the Andaman Region of the Indian Ocean and surrounding areas changed my life. For this was the day — the day following Christmas, traditionally termed Boxing Day by the British and her former colonies — that a massive earthquake of between 9.1 and 9.3 magnitude occurred under the sea bed off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The quake riggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing 230,000–280,000 people in 14 countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 100 feet (30 meters) high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph and had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between 8.3 and 10 minutes. It caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.
Here in Phuket, Thailand, the first of five tsunami waves occurred just after 10:00 in the morning local time, just two hours after the initial earthquake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC. The tsunami struck the west coast of Phuket, flooding and causing damage to almost all the major beaches such as Patong, Karon, Kamala, and Kata.
At Patong Beach — a tourist mecca — the tsunami heights were 16.4 feet-19.7 feet (5–6 meters) and the inundated depth was about 6.6 feet (2 meters). The tsunami heights became lower from the west coast, the south coast to the east coast of the island. On Karon Beach on the west coast, the coastal road was built higher than the shore and it acted as a seawall, protecting a hotel which was behind it. On the east coast of Phuket Island, which was not facing the tsunami source, the tsunami height was about 6.6 feet (2 meters). The tsunami propagated anticlockwise around Phuket Island. The leading wave produced an initial depression and the second wave was the largest.
The Thai government reported 4,812 confirmed deaths, 8,457 injuries, and 4,499 missing. Thai authorities estimated that at least 8,150 were likely to have died compared to 230.000 to 280.000 that died in Aceh, Indonesia. These numbers are considered locally to have been reduced from the actual numbers due to large casualties sustained by undocumented foreign workers such as Burmese fishermen and construction workers and the fact that the Thai government wanted to appear safe to foreign tourists.
The plight of the affected people and countries prompted a worldwide humanitarian response. In all, the worldwide community donated more than US$14 billion (2004) in humanitarian aid. The event is known by the scientific community as the Sumatra–Andaman earthquake. The resulting tsunami was given various names, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, South Asian tsunami, Indonesian tsunami, the Christmas tsunami and the Boxing Day tsunami.
The hypocentre of the main earthquake was approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the western coast of northern Sumatra, in the Indian Ocean just north of Simeulue island at a depth of 19 miles (30 kilometers) below mean sea level. The northern section of the Sunda megathrust ruptured over a length of 810 miles (1,300 kilometers). The earthquake (followed by the tsunami) was felt simultaneously in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and the Maldives. Splay faults, or secondary “pop up faults”, caused long, narrow parts of the sea floor to pop up in seconds. This quickly elevated the height and increased the speed of waves, causing the complete destruction of the nearby Indonesian town of Lhoknga.
The sudden vertical rise of the seabed by several meters during the earthquake displaced massive volumes of water, resulting in a tsunami that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean. A tsunami that causes damage far away from its source is sometimes called a teletsunami and is much more likely to be produced by vertical motion of the seabed than by horizontal motion. The tsunami, like all others, behaved very differently in deep water than in shallow water. In deep ocean water, tsunami waves form only a small hump, barely noticeable and harmless, which generally travels at a very high speed of 310 to 620 miles per hour (500 to 1,000 km/h); in shallow water near coastlines, a tsunami slows down to only tens of kilometres per hour but, in doing so, forms large destructive waves.
Scientists investigating the damage in Aceh found evidence that the wave reached a height of 80 feet (24 meters) when coming ashore along large stretches of the coastline, rising to 100 feet (30 meters) in some areas when traveling inland. Radar satellites recorded the heights of tsunami waves in deep water: at two hours after the earthquake, the maximum height was2 feet (60 centimeters). These are the first such observations ever made. Unfortunately these observations could not be used to provide a warning, since the satellites were not built for that purpose and the data took hours to analyze.
According to Tad Murty, vice-president of the Tsunami Society, the total energy of the tsunami waves was equivalent to about five megatons of TNT (20 petajoules). This is more than twice the total explosive energy used during all of World War II (including the two atomic bombs) but still a couple of orders of magnitude less than the energy released in the earthquake itself. In many places the waves reached as far as 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) inland.
Because the 1,000-mile (1,600 km) fault affected by the earthquake was in a nearly north-south orientation, the greatest strength of the tsunami waves was in an east-west direction. Bangladesh, which lies at the northern end of the Bay of Bengal, had very few casualties despite being a low-lying country relatively near the epicenter. It also benefited from the fact that the earthquake proceeded more slowly in the northern rupture zone, greatly reducing the energy of the water displacements in that region.
Coasts that have a landmass between them and the tsunami’s location of origin are usually safe; however, tsunami waves can sometimes diffract around such landmasses. Thus, the state of Kerala was hit by the tsunami despite being on the western coast of India, and the western coast of Sri Lanka suffered substantial impacts. Distance alone was no guarantee of safety, as Somalia was hit harder than Bangladesh despite being much farther away.
Because of the distances involved, the tsunami took anywhere from fifteen minutes to seven hours to reach the coastlines. The northern regions of the Indonesian island of Sumatra were hit very quickly, while Sri Lanka and the east coast of India were hit roughly 90 minutes to two hours later. Thailand was struck about two hours later despite being closer to the epicenter, because the tsunami traveled more slowly in the shallow Andaman Sea off its western coast.
The tsunami was noticed as far as Struisbaai in South Africa, some 5,300 miles (8,500 km) away, where a 5 foot (1.5 meter) high tide surged on shore about 16 hours after the earthquake. It took a relatively long time to reach this spot at the southernmost point of Africa, probably because of the broad continental shelf off South Africa and because the tsunami would have followed the South African coast from east to west. The tsunami also reached Antarctica, where tidal gauges at Japan’s Showa Base recorded oscillations of up to a metre (3 feet 3 inches), with disturbances lasting a couple of days.
Some of the tsunami’s energy escaped into the Pacific Ocean, where it produced small but measurable tsunamis along the western coasts of North and South America, typically around 20 to 40 cm (7.9 to 15.7 in). At Manzanillo, Mexico, a 2.6 m (8 ft 6 in) crest-to-trough tsunami was measured. As well, the tsunami was large enough to be detected in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This puzzled many scientists, as the tsunamis measured in some parts of South America were larger than those measured in some parts of the Indian Ocean. It has been theorized that the tsunamis were focused and directed at long ranges by the mid-ocean ridges which run along the margins of the continental plates.
Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all of the victims were taken completely by surprise. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn the general population living around the ocean. Tsunami detection is not easy because while a tsunami is in deep water it has little height and a network of sensors is needed to detect it. Setting up the communications infrastructure to issue timely warnings is an even bigger problem, particularly in a relatively poor part of the world.
Tsunamis are much more frequent in the Pacific Ocean because of earthquakes in the “Ring of Fire”, and an effective tsunami warning system has long been in place there. Although the extreme western edge of the Ring of Fire extends into the Indian Ocean (the point where this earthquake struck), no warning system exists in that ocean. Tsunamis there are relatively rare despite earthquakes being relatively frequent in Indonesia. The last major tsunami was caused by the Krakatoa eruption of 1883. It should be noted that not every earthquake produces large tsunamis; on March 28, 2005, a magnitude 8.7 earthquake hit roughly the same area of the Indian Ocean but did not result in a major tsunami.
The first warning sign of a possible tsunami is the earthquake itself. However, tsunamis can strike thousands of kilometers away where the earthquake is only felt weakly or not at all. Also, in the minutes preceding a tsunami strike, the sea often recedes temporarily from the coast. This was observed on the eastern side of the rupture zone of the earthquake such as around the coastlines of Aceh province, Phuket and Khao Lak in Thailand, Penang Island of Malaysia and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Around the Indian Ocean, this rare sight reportedly induced people, especially children, to visit the coast to investigate and collect stranded fish on as much as 1.6 miles (2.5 km) of exposed beach, with fatal results. However, not all tsunamis cause this “disappearing sea” effect. In some cases, there are no warning signs at all: the sea will suddenly swell without retreating, surprising many people and giving them little time to flee.
Scuba divers near the abundant coral reefs in Thailand and the Maldives were reportedly caught off guard by violent, swirling underwater currents. The divers described the experience like being in a ‘washing machine’. Coral reef animals like fish were also absent as the tsunami passed by.
One of the few coastal areas to evacuate ahead of the tsunami was on the Indonesian island of Simeulue, very close to the epicenter. Island folklore recounted an earthquake and tsunami in 1907, and the islanders fled to inland hills after the initial shaking and before the tsunami struck. These tales and oral folklore from previous generations may have helped the survival of the inhabitants. On Maikhao Beach in northern Phuket, Thailand, a 10-year-old British tourist named Tilly Smith had studied tsunami in geography at school and recognized the warning signs of the receding ocean and frothing bubbles. She and her parents warned others on the beach, which was evacuated safely. John Chroston, a biology teacher from Scotland, also recognized the signs at Kamala Bay on Phuket, taking a busload of vacationers and locals to safety on higher ground.
Anthropologists had initially expected the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands to be badly affected by the tsunami and even feared the already depopulated Onge tribe could have been wiped out. Many of the aboriginal tribes evacuated and suffered fewer casualties. Oral traditions developed from previous earthquakes helped the aboriginal tribes escape the tsunami. For example, the folklore of the Onges talks of “huge shaking of ground followed by high wall of water”. Almost all of the Onge people seemed to have survived the tsunami.
The tsunami first struck the west and north coasts of northern Sumatra, Indonesia particularly in Aceh province in the early morning. At Ulee Lheue in Banda Aceh, a survivor described three waves, with the first wave rising only to the foundation of the buildings. This was followed by a large withdrawal of the sea before the second and third waves hit. The tsunami reached shore 15–20 minutes after the earthquake, and the second was bigger than the first. This is the same as that in Khao Lak and Phuket Island in southern Thailand. A local resident living at Banda Aceh states that the giant wave was ‘higher than my house’. Another resident living 2 km (1.2 mi) near the coast on the outskirts of the city stated that the tsunami was ‘like a wall, very black’ in colour and had a ‘distinct sound’ getting louder as it nears the coast. The maximum runup height of the tsunami was measured at a hill between Lhoknga and Leupung, located on the west coast of the northern tip of Sumatra, near Banda Aceh, and reached more than 30 m (100 ft). Other towns on Aceh’s west coast hit by the disaster included Leupung, Lhokruet, Lamno, Patek, Calang, Teunom, and the island of Simeulue. Affected or destroyed towns on the region’s north and east coast were Pidie Regency, Samalanga, Panteraja and Lhokseumawe. The very high fatality in the area is mainly due to the unpreparedness of the population. Helicopter surveys showed entire settlements virtually destroyed with destruction miles inland and only a few mosques left standing, providing refuge for people from the tsunami.
The tsunami arrived in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands minutes after the earthquake, and it caused extensive devastation to the islands’ environment. Specifically, the Andaman Islands were moderately affected while the island of Little Andaman and the Nicobar Islands were severely affected by the tsunami. Waves nearly 3-stories high, devastated the Indian Air Force base near Malacca. The worst affected island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain was Katchall Island with 303 people confirmed dead and 4,354 missing out of a total population of 5,312. Eyewitnesses at Port Blair recalled that the water receded before the first wave, and the third wave was the tallest and caused the most damage. However, at Hut Bay, Malacca and Campbell Bay — locations far south of Port Blair — it was reported that the water level rose by about 1–2 m (3.3 ft-6.6 ft) from the normal sea level and remained there before the first wave crashed ashore.
The refracted tsunami waves inundated the southwestern part of Sri Lanka after some of its energy has been reflected from impact with the Maldives. Sri Lanka is located 1,056 miles (1,700 km) from the epicenter and the tsunami source, so no one felt the ground shake and the tsunami hit the entire coastline of Sri Lanka around 2 hours after the earthquake. It seems that the tsunami flooding consisted of three main waves, with the second being the largest and most destructive. The first tsunami waves had initially caused a small flood (positive wave) as it struck the Sri Lankan coastline. Moments later, the ocean floor was exposed to as much as 1 km (0.62 miles) in places due to drawback (negative wave). This was followed by a massive second tsunami wave, which was in the form of a flood. Certain locations managed to reduce the power of the waves through construction of seawalls and breakwaters. The largest run-up measured was at 12.5 m (41 ft) with inundation distance of 390 m to 1.5 km (0.242 miles-0.932 miles) in Yala. In Hambantota, tsunami run-ups are measured at 11 m (36.1 ft) with the greatest inundation distance of 2 km (1.24 miles), and tsunami run-up measurements along the Sri Lankan coasts are at 2.4–11 m (7.87 ft-36.1 ft). Tsunami waves measured on the east coast ranged from 4.5 m-9 m (14.8 ft-29.5 ft) at Pottuvill to around Batticaloa, 2.6 m- 5 m (8.53 ft-16.4 ft) in the northeast around Trincomalee and 4 m-5 m (13.1 ft-16.4 ft) in the west coast from Moratuwa to Ambalangoda.
The Sumudra Devi, a passenger train out of Colombo, was derailed and overturned by the tsunami. The tsunami caused the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami-rail disaster which took at least 1,700 lives, making it the largest single rail disaster in world history by death toll. Estimates based on the state of the shoreline and a high-water mark on a nearby building place the tsunami 7.5–9 m (24.6 ft to 29.5 ft) above sea level and 2–3 m (6.6 ft to 9.8 ft) higher than the top of the train.
In Sri Lanka, the civilian casualties were second only to those in Indonesia. Reports vary on the number of deaths since many people are still considered missing and the country lacks adequate communications. The eastern shores of Sri Lanka faced the hardest impact since they were facing the epicenter of the earthquake. The southwestern shores were hit later, but the death toll was just as severe. The southwestern shores were a hotspot for tourists as well as the fishing economy. Tourism and fishing industries created high population densities along the coast. The coastal lifestyle of people and degradation of the natural environment in Sri Lanka contributed to the high death tolls. In addition to the high number of fatalities, approximately 90,000 buildings were destroyed. Houses were easily destroyed since they were built mostly from wood.
The tsunami hit the southwest coast of southern Thailand, which was about 500 km (310.69 miles) from the epicenter. The region is famous for its high quality resorts, pristine beaches, spectacular islands with warm Andaman blue waters and stunning scenery making it prominent with tourists internationally. Since the tsunami hit around high tide, its damage was severe. Approximately 5,400 people were killed and 3,100 people were reported missing in Thailand. The places where the tsunami attacked were Khao Lak, Phuket Island, the Phi Phi Islands, Koh Racha Yai, Koh Lanta Yai and Ao Nang of Krabi Province, offshore archipelagos like the Surin Islands, the Similan Islands, and coastal areas of Satun, Ranong, Phang Nga, Trang and Krabi provinces.
The country experienced the largest tsunami runup height of any location outside of Sumatra, which occurred at Khao Lak and the areas of Takua Pa district that are facing the Andaman Sea. The province of Phang-Nga was the most heavily affected area in Thailand. The northern part of Phang-Nga Province is a rural area with fishing and agricultural villages while the central part has several resort hotels. Khao Lak is located in the south of Phang-Nga Province with many luxurious hotels, popular to foreign tourists, especially from Europe. Khao Lak was hit by the tsunami after 10:00 AM and the death toll there was the largest in Thailand. Many local villagers and tourists lost their lives during the event. A maximum inundation of approximately 2 km (1.2 miles) and the inundated depths were 4–7 m (13.12 ft-23 ft) in Khao Lak. The tsunami heights in Khao Lak were much higher than on Phuket Island. The reason for this difference seems to have been caused by the local bathymetry off Khao Lak. According to some interviews with local residents and affected tourists, the leading wave produced an initial depression, called a tsunami drawback or ‘disappearing sea’ effect and the second wave was largest. The highest recorded tsunami runup measured was at 19.6 m (64.3 ft) at Ban Thung Dap, located on the southwest tip of Ko Phra Thong Island and the second highest at 15.8 m (51.8 ft) at Ban Nam Kim. Bhumi Jensen, grandson of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was among those killed in Khao Lak.
At Phuket, many of its west coast beaches were affected. At Patong Beach, the tsunami heights were 5–6 m (16.4 ft-19.7 ft) and the inundated depth was about 2 m (6.6 ft). The tsunami heights became lower from the west coast, the south coast to the east coast of the island. On Karon beach on the west coast, the coastal road was built higher than the shore and it acted as a seawall, protecting a hotel which was behind it. On the east coast of Phuket, which was not facing the tsunami source, the tsunami height was about 2 m (6.6 ft). In one river mouth, many boats were damaged. The tsunami propagated anticlockwise around Phuket Island, as was the case at Okushiri Island in the 1993 Hokkaido earthquake. According to some interviews, the leading wave produced an initial depression and the second wave was the largest.
The Phi Phi Islands are a group of small islands that were affected by the tsunami. The north bay of Phi Phi Don Island opens to the northwest, thus it faced in the direction that the tsunami came from. The measured tsunami height on this beach was 5.8 m (19.02 ft). According to some eyewitnesses accounts, the tsunami came from the north and south, and totally washed the central area away. The ground level here was about 2 m (6.6 ft) above sea level, but there were many cottages and hotels. Therefore, the tsunami waves from the north and south destroyed the area, the south bay opens to the southeast. It faces in the opposite direction to which the tsunami was propagated. Further, Phi Phi Le Island shields the port of Phi Phi Don Island. The measured tsunami height, however, was 4.6 m (15.1 ft) in this port. It indicated that the tsunami propagated around the islands. Hundreds of holiday tourists on the Phi Phi Islands were washed out to sea.
Tuk-tuk drivers were quick to offer assistance, driving victims to hospitals, higher grounds and away from the surging waters. At some places in Phuket and Phang Nga provinces, elephants were used to move and lift heavy wreckage to search for victims and to clear roads. These included six male Indian elephants which had previously been used in making the movie Alexander. On a beach in Thailand, a man was leading an elephant to entertain tourists, when the tsunami came. The elephant’s natural instinct to flee the sea saved the life of a young girl who was upon his back.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey a total of 227,898 people died during the tsunami. Measured in lives lost, this is one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history, as well as the single worst tsunami in history. Indonesia was the worst affected area, with most death toll estimates at around 170,000. However, another report by Siti Fadilah Supari, the Indonesian Minister of Health at the time, estimated the death total to be as high as 220,000 in Indonesia alone, giving a total of 280,000 fatalities.
The tsunami caused serious damage and deaths as far as the east coast of Africa, with the farthest recorded death due to the tsunami occurring at Rooi Els in South Africa, 8,000 km (5,000 mi) away from the epicenter. In total, eight people in South Africa died due to abnormally high sea levels and waves.
Relief agencies reported that one-third of the dead appeared to be children. This was a result of the high proportion of children in the populations of many of the affected regions and because children were the least able to resist being overcome by the surging waters. Oxfam went on to report that as many as four times more women than men were killed in some regions because they were waiting on the beach for the fishermen to return and looking after their children in the houses.
In addition to the large number of local residents, up to 9,000 foreign tourists (mostly Europeans) enjoying the peak holiday travel season were among the dead or missing, especially people from the Nordic countries. The European nation hardest hit may have been Sweden, whose death toll was 543.
States of emergency were declared in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives. The United Nations estimated at the outset that the relief operation would be the costliest in human history. Then-United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that reconstruction would probably take between five and ten years. Governments and non-governmental organizations feared that the final death toll might double as a result of diseases, prompting a massive humanitarian response. In the end, this fear did not materialize.
A number of different countries issued stamps to raise awareness and humanitarian relief funds following the Boxing Day tsunami. The earliest of these was probably a non-demoninated 50 centimes with 20-centime surcharge semi-postal stamp released by France on January 13, 2005 (Scott #B709, illustrated below). On the one year anniversary of the tsunami — December 26, 2005 — Thailand issued a pair of stamps listed as #2211 by the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. The right stamp, #2211b, features a child’s drawing entitled “Undivided Kindness of Thai People” by then-student Chanipa Themprom. Today’s featured stamp, Scott #2211a, portrays a painting simply entitled “Wave” by Mayuree Narkisorn. The stamps were printed by lithography on granite paper, perforated 14½x14. They are each denominated at 3 baht.
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