Commemorating 30,000 lives lost in two hours
“Day after Tomorrow”, the blockbuster Hollywood film was enacted in a real life drama on 26/12, fifteen years ago when giant tidal waves lashed 3/4th of the island’s coast plunging into a crisis of unprecedented nature reminding one of the legendary Viharamaha Devi, [daughter of King Kelanitissa] who volunteered to sacrifice her life as predicted by soothsayers, for the sake of her countrymen two millennia ago. As the story goes…, Kelanitissa punished a monk by boiling him alive. The gods, enraged over this brutal act, made the sea rush inland flooding the land.
Galle Tsunami - 1907
In between the two well recorded Tsunamis, there had been a minor tremor that caused a mini-tsunami 112 years ago. Flicking through newspapers of a century ago at Archives, the writer came across a news item in Ceylon Observer of January 4, 1907:-
“Strange Tidal Effect at Galle”-‘The Sea Recedes 50 Feet’--Fish and lobsters stranded—Galle, Jan. 4, 4.38 pm….. ‘The sea in harbour first receded at 1.30 in the afternoon some 35 to 50 feet. The whole coast round the harbour is dry for the same distance. Fish and lobsters were caught by coolies and others. The sea receded again several times at intervals of half an hour or so….the incoming swell has a strong current. There is very high water at the jetty. …The lighters landing rice from “Ludhiana” are in danger. Some boats narrowly escaped being wrecked on the rocks. ….’[see attachment]
Banks, private sector companies, and voluntary organizations came forward to help the distraught people. India, Japan, USA, China, France, Russia and Norway provided assistance, while a special Japanese team headed by the Secretary for Foreign Affairs arrived in Colombo within 48 hours. A Matara-bound train, was hit between Seenigama and Hikkaduwa by the second tidal wave killing hundreds including foreigners. Destroying properties worth billions of dollars and killing hundreds of thousands of lives in the region; the tremor of huge magnitude had the earth vibrating and disturbing its rotation according to Enzo Boschi, renowned scientist attached to Italy’s National Geophysics Institute.
People’s behaviour during natural disasters should be understood with the help of key elements like culture and religion; and how they interact with the environment on a daily basis. Many people since the beginning of recorded history thought that external spiritual force or a divine being is responsible for creating disasters. The disastrous events were believed to be weapons in God’s armoury, used in punishment. In August 2005, some fundamentalists believed Hurricane Katrina was the work of God to punish the New Orleans, a city famous for vociferous festivals, while others believed it was to punish the US for their role in removing Jewish settlers in Gaza Strip. Kashmir earthquake in 2005 and Pakistan’s floods, worst recorded in the history were interpreted as punishment from God, by the Islamic leaders.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, speaking on the tragedy, the most inconceivable disaster of such magnitude concluded, “How can you believe in a God who permits suffering in this scale?”
‘Boxing Day’ Catastrophe
The day after Christmas; December 26 is usually thought a fixed day of the year called Boxing Day. The Tsunami that occurred on a Boxing Day exactly 15 years ago took the lives of over 230,000 persons of all nationalities and religions, proving that nature does not discriminate, and left millions orphaned, widowed or distressed of their loved ones. It was with a sense of shock and dismay that we learned by 9.30 am on Sunday December 26, 2004, that a huge earthquake had occurred a couple of hours before close to the island of Sumatra. We had news from time to time of devastating earthquakes in different places of the globe. Earthquakes are measured on what is known as the Richter Scale (named after Dr. Charles F. Richter). Usually, the earthquakes we had heard up to this point were of the order of 4.5 to a maximum of 7.5 on the scale. However, the Boxing day Sumatra earthquake measured 9.4 on the Richter scale. By any standards, this was certainly an enormous quake.
The quake had in fact occurred on the subterranean sea bed adjacent to Sumatra. The vertical thrust of the sea bed, consequential from the quake, had pushed the waters almost 70 feet up. Thus creating a huge wave travelling at over 800 km/hour destroying the entire coastal belts of Sumatra, of Nicobar Islands and of Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and the Maldives, which forced in a westerly course because of land impediments on the eastward end. The WAVE Tsunami, on coastal area to the west disturbed a large stretch of coastline in the Indian Continent, badly affecting the Province of Aceh, Indonesia where it was estimated 120,000 perished. It affected little over ten countries before coming to a still on the East African coastline upsetting human life in Somalia. Tsunami waves took a little over two hours to reach the island of Sri Lanka, travelling from its epicenter in Sumatra along the ocean. We on that Sunday morning carried on our usual morning habitual chores without any idea of the ‘terror’ that was to come. Originally generated by the movement of the sea-bed near Sumatra, these waves clearly lay within the earthquake belts.
Tectonic Plate: Sri Lanka as Part of India?
The study of dynamics of the earth’s crust know as “Plate Tectonics”, explains the movement of the earth’s crust causing earthquakes. A study says, millions of years ago, African continent and South America constituted a single adjacent thin layer of sedimentary rock, which due to tectonic properties had separated over the years. They believe that Sri Lanka and the numerous islets over us seem to indicate that we were once part of India. Scientifically referred to as plates, the earth’s crust consist of 3 to 5 of them. The Indo-plate under Indian continent and its neighboring land was connected to the Australian plate, forming a huge and bordering land heap. The friction between these two massive plates or even a crash could lead to the occurrence of quakes. The harm done to our coastal districts is of such an extent that we could not find space to justify it in a newspaper column.
One good feature that materialised from the December 26 disaster in Sri Lanka was the coming together of people from all ethnic and religious groups sans differences, conflicts or disagreements which had been a curse since 1950s in our little island. Top politicians and people rose up to the occasion to assist the affected by this tragedy. Cooked food, dry rations, new cloths, medicine and water collected from donors and distributed by volunteers. I felt proud to be a Sri Lankan when Management representatives from a Indian conglomerate who visited our organization to take part in seminar expressed their surprise, at the way our people acted, One of them said, “This is unbelievable, it would never have occurred in my country.”
The first Tsunami wave after devastating the coastal land, receded back into the ocean creating a stretch of open sand over a hundred metres in to the shallow sea, clearing the sea shore making many people venturing to the ‘re-claimed’ shore collecting fish that struggled without water. Within ten or fifteen minutes the second wave which was much bigger encroached, causing extensive destruction beyond our comprehension.
Is it correct to call upon God to account for natural catastrophe as per conventional religious point of view? ‘Mind is the forerunner of all conditions; and all things are mind-made. The evil intentions of our thoughts, speech and actions, will follow us like the carriage that follows the bull’—Buddha. ‘As you sow you shall reap and as you do unto others it will be done unto you’—Jesus Christ. All main religions, whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity or Islam, have embodied compassion and love and as the essential motivating factor in all their teachings. We cannot conceal our violations of moral and spiritual laws. The penalties of our actions and thoughts build up over time; will come behind us demanding returns. I conclude by affirming again that unless we address our problems at the deeper level of love and of forgiveness and charity, we will continue to suffer more disasters, not only at a natural level but at political, economic and societal levels as well.
The Japanese term ‘Tsunami’ meaning ‘harbour wave’ was alien to Sri Lankans. A joke doing the rounds in social circuit spoke of how the Hawaiian Tsunami Monitoring centre made contact with one of our ministers in the early hours of 26/12. “There was a tsunami coming from Indonesia in two hrs”, the message said. The minister acting promptly, ordered a delegation to the Airport with a paging board, “Welcome Mr. Tsunami of Indonesia.”