Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami strikes Thailand

Thailand's southern island of Phuket was hit by a tsunami on December 26, 2004. The wave was spawned by an earthquake in Indonesia and the ripple hit the entire Indian Ocean region. More than 150,000 people were killed in the disaster.

WANT TO DONATE? The Red Cross is one of the best. The Thai Visa Forum has a list of local Thai charities.

Aid is coming to the region. The US, under heavy criticism for donating the least among the wealthiest countries, has now upped its aid tenfold to $350 million. The US is now coordinating the relief efforts, using Thailand's air force and naval bases as staging areas. Now, more than a week after the quake, relief and recovery efforts have finally hit their stride. A US Navy helicopter rescued some stranded villagers in Indonesia.

And it's the Ex-Presidents to the rescue! Bill Clinton and George HW Bush are joining for an effort to raise more funds for the relief effort. Also Colin Powell and Jeb Bush were in the region to survey the damage.

Among the dead in Thailand is a prince, Khun Poom Jensen, the 21-year-old Thai-American grandson of His Majesty the King.

Varying stories are emerging about the death toll in Thailand. The Times of London recently discovered a mass grave, said to have as many as 10,000 bodies.

The worst-hit country was Indonesia. But there was at least one incredible story of survival: A woman was led to safety by a giant snake.

Animals are also helping out in Thailand. Six elephants that performed in Oliver Stone's Alexander were helping the clean-up efforts in Phuket. Before the wave hit, animals were giving villagers warning signs. Among many places where this is being discussed is the Thai Visa forum. Specifically, elephants alerted villagers to the danger in one place. In another, a water buffalo's behavior caused concern.

However, it was a water buffalo that created problems in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The bovine draft animal was blocking the runway when a cargo jet was trying to land, causing the aircraft to crash and closing the airport for a time, delaying the relief effort.

In other places, it was a child who sounded the warning call. In one case, a 10-year-old British schoolgirl, who had just learned about earthquakes and tsunamis, was able to clear a beach before the wave hit.

A tale of hope: A Swedish toddler, found sitting alone on a roadside in Phuket, was reunited with his father. His mother is still missing, though.

Another survival tale: A pregnant Swedish woman and her 2-year-old son survived the wave by grabbing a passing log.

Celebrities caught up in the disaster include Jet Li, who was vactioning in the Maldives. He's okay. Others include:
  • Lucy Holland, the 14-year-old granddaughter of director Richard Attenborough, died in the disaster at Phuket. The Attenboroughs elder daughter, Jane, was also presumed dead, as was Jane's mother-in-law.
  • Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova was swept into the water off Khao Lak near Phuket. She clung to a palm tree for eight hours until she could be rescued. Her boyfriend, British fashion photographer Simon Atlee, 33, was still missing.
  • Swedish skiing great Ingemar Stenmark was sunbathing at Khok Kloi, about 50 kilometres from Phuket, when he saw an immense wave roaring to shore. He ran for his life and survived.
  • Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his entourage were holidaying in Sri Lanka. They were evacuated on Tuesday from a hotel by the Sri Lankan air force.
  • A diving school built by author Arthur C Clarke, a resident of Sri Lanka, was lost to the wave.
Celebrities are now pitching in to help the recovery effort. In Hong Kong, an all-star concert was planned, featuring the likes of Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung. Jet Li was to appear and tell his survival story.

Musicians are helping out in other places, too. Willie Nelson is headlining one benefit show. Cliff Richard and Boy George will appear on a single recorded for the occasion.

In Thailand, songs-for-life guru Carabao has written a song especially for the survivors.

Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sandra Bullock are among the Hollywood types putting up money.

Foreign tourists have bore the brunt of the disaster in Thailand. Word is that 1,000 of the dead on the island resort of Koh Lak are Swedish. This is just one nationality on one small island. Experts and relatives are now racing to Thailand in an effort to identify the dead.

More stuff:Having recently visited Phuket for some canoeing, the news is pretty sobering. I need to get word out to some friends down there and see if they are okay.

I heard from John Gray, my canoe man in Phuket. He's okay. A former resident of Hawaii, he'd seen tsunamis before and knew it was coming because of the tide quickly receding before the wave rolled ashore. He had also felt the earthquake. He was able to get some people back. "We saved many lives," he told me. John recounts that morning when the rumbling began in a story he wrote for Saturday's paper.

I have also written an account of my own tsunami experience, undramatic as it was. It appears in The (Harrisburg) Daily Register, the first paper I worked for out of college.

The Thai meteorological department held an emergency meeting about the tsunami before the wave hit. They had heard word of the quake on Sumatra and debated issuing a warning. Two years ago, a similar quake occurred in Indonesia and a tsunami warning was issued. Tourist activities were halted and people were ordered to safety. The waves never came and the meteorological department was reprimanded by the prime minister. So this time, out of fear for their jobs and disrupting tourism, they decided to do nothing. Very sad how the culture of fear and greed rules decisions that affect people's lives.

The Bangkok Post now reports that the head of the meteorological department has been "transferred to an inactive post" -- a popular euphemism for being sacked -- and the department is being probed about why it issued no warning. Well, I've just explained why it issued no warning. But somebody's got to take the blame. Also, a former head of the department, who was "transferred to an inactive post" several years ago for warning about the lack of a tsunami warning system, has been put in charge of setting up just such a system.

The UN is also calling for a tsunmai warning system in the Indian Ocean.

In Malaysia, an early warning system modelled on that used by lifeguards in Baywatch TV show helped save lives. Lifeguards in a tower at Batu Feringghi beach noticed rough and choppy waters around noon on Sunday and raised a red flag to warn the people that the beach was not safe. Beachfront hotels in turn warned their guests to keep away from the beach and stop all activities there.

John Gray referred me to the USGS Earthquake Center. The quake was a magnitude 9, was the biggest since 1964 and was the fourth-largest quake since 1900.

It echoes the 1883 explosion of a volcano on Krakatoa island, which rocked Java and much of the world. Some Thai minerology officials said the December 26 quake was the worst in 459 years.

The earthquake was so strong, it altered the Earth's orbit, resulting in making our days one ten-thousandth of a second shorter, reports the Chicago Tribune. Some small islands might have been moved by as much as 20 meters, changing the map, a USGS expert told AFP. A report in the New York Post, citing the same source as AFP, says the changes might have been more dramatic, with small islands moving as much as 12.5 miles.

This was apparently a rare occurrence in Thailand, with the Thai prime minister saying something like this had never happened before.

Rare as they are, tsunamis are a part of the culture and folklore. Just a couple of years ago there was Thai film out that featured some hokey CGI of a giant wave wiping out a southern Thai village.

In Bangkok, New Year's celebrations were cancelled.

Here is a gallery of photos from the tsunami.

(Cross published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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