Mapping Tragedy: Tracing the Path of the Deadliest Disaster in Modern History
By Ashley Suffle
For the past week the media buzz has been deafening—a metaphorical journalistic swarm centering a hive of catastrophe. Headlines such as “Fearing a Sea Which Once Sustained, Then Killed” from the New York Times and “Asian Earthquake Kills Thousands” thrum through television sets, across radio waves, and through text around the globe. They inspire compassion and sorrow but blur clarity. In sifting through reports of aid requests, relief efforts, and community outreach, the actual events leading up to the worst disaster in recent history are patchy at best.
December 26th, 2004 begins as any other day might in coastal regions of Southeast Asia. Vacationers awake and enjoy the beautiful tropical morning, far removed from winter woes, and natives busily go about their daily routines, both groups unaware of the fatal disaster brewing in the distance. By early evening, however, an entire region had borne testimony to the deadly power of Mother Nature.
A mere 155 miles offshore from Indonesia, two colliding tectonic plates finally release the energy that pure friction had been building for years in the form of an earth-shattering earthquake. Registering an 8.9 on the Richter scale—determined later by geophysicists at Harvard—the “quake” quickly and easily generates 30 foot tsunami waves that radiate from the epicenter at speeds that best jet airplanes.
Indonesia’s coastal areas feel the earthquake one half-hour before the tsunami ever makes landfall. All but the Islamic mosks, the most soundly constructed buildings, suffer structural damage with this initial blast. Citizens, picking through the rubble in supposed safety, are suddenly blindsided by the first of three lethal tsunamis generated by the “quake”. These waves catch the already distressed citizenry at their most vulnerable, wreaking unheard-of havoc. Those few who recognize the warning signs of a receding ocean flee for high ground, but most are swept away in heavy currents as three waves hit the islands anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes apart. By the time the waves complete their pass, nearly 100,000 people are left dead, injured, or missing. As the people of Indonesia survey their ruined coastline in shock, the rest of Southeast Asia remains blissfully unaware of the menace lurking on the horizon.
The energy of the tsunami carries it past Indonesia; it sweeps over the small Andaman and Nicobar Islands located over 440 miles from the epicenter. The islands are swamped with over 50 feet of water traveling with the same force as those seen in Indonesia a half-hour prior. Villages and towns are completely annihilated, changing not only the population of the area but the geography as well. Smaller, satellite islands completely drop off the map, submerged. Others are rent in two through sheer, unadulterated force. The island population suffers losses equaling one-fifth of their total population, but even more are to be added to that count before the day is over.
The deadly wave is far from through. The phenomenon steadily advances, showing no mercy as a wall of the Indian Ocean crashes into its namesake. Tamil Nadu, one of India’s southernmost cities, is hardest hit. Houses, cars, and hotels are turned into coffins as coastal establishments are pounded into rubble. Thousands of Islamic followers are engulfed without a chance for survival as the wave violently disturbs their ritualistic bathing in the normally peaceful ocean. By this point the wave has expanded, hitting Malaysia, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and the Maldives nearly simultaneously.
Sri Lanka, 1000 miles away from the epicenter, isn’t the last stop on the tsunami’s deadly tour but by far the worst affected. This country sports the highest per capita death toll with over 30,000 dead and thousands more missing. Some 800,000 Sri Lankan citizens are now homeless paupers.
As relief workers make their way through the affected countries, the devastation is being revealed to the world like a slowly clearing fog. This horrific disaster began with an earthquake at 8:00 AM and ten hours later the silence left in its wake is deafening. Death tolls, originally predicted in the thousands, have passed into six digits and are only on the rise. As people slowly begin building upon the toothpicks left of their former lives, the world comes to their aid with money and supplies.
© Ashley Suffle