May 8, 2007 By Jessica Weidling
The figures still strike fear in our hearts: an estimated 230,210 dead; some 2 million displaced; 370,000 homes obliterated; and about 5,000 miles of coastline destroyed.
But they also give hope of resilience: $13 billion in pledges and roughly $11 billion in commitments for projects; 150,000 homes, and 1,600 schools and health centers have been rebuilt or repaired; and economies and tourist hubs are quickly rebounding, according to the United Nations (U.N.) Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.
Its waters besieged the beaches of 11 Southeast Asian countries, but the hard-earned lessons and time-worn perspective of emergency management successes and failures following the days, weeks, months -- and now years -- after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are still very much alive and relevant.
This tsunami was unique in that it affected so many countries and cultures at once.
The casualties comprised local residents, fishing community villagers, foreign visitors and resort vacationers. Some coastal Indonesian villages lost 70 percent of their inhabitants in just 24 hours, according to the BBC.
In Thailand, foreign help was swift, as forensic specialists traveled to the country within days of the disaster to assist vacationing nationals. But a much different picture was painted in countries like Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, where international help was scarce.
Since the destruction, much has been accomplished in the way of preparedness: Affected countries started implementing a regional early-warning system, passed natural disaster prevention legislation, began training first responders and sought to educate the public, according to former President Bill Clinton's two-year anniversary analysis of the situation for the U.N. special envoy.
But some regions have proven more resilient than others. Continual analysis of how different communities deal with elusive, impending and highly destructive natural disasters here and abroad will help sharpen preparation guidelines for future disaster management efforts. Unfortunately the characteristic outpouring of money, interest and research following a big incident often fades as years pass.
"The enthusiasm sort of dissipates over time, and when nobody is actually investing any money, the whole place is not prepared, and then the next disaster hits," said Di Jin, associate scientist at the Marine Policy Center of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). "The idea is to develop a more robust, or sustainable, hazard management system."
Tectonic plates under the ocean floor thrust against one another off the coast of Sumatra, an Indonesian island, on Dec. 26, 2004, catapulting 80-foot waves on Southeast Asian coastal communities, many of which were vulnerable even before the disaster, creating a true international catastrophe.
The tsunami hit Aceh, Indonesia, within 15 minutes of the shaking, and poured onto the southwest coast of Thailand two hours later. The disaster's scale and size broke records in emergency management and response as locals and foreigners puzzled the pieces together in the aftermath.
The 9.1- to 9.3-magnitude Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, the second most powerful earthquake on record, was so intense that NASA scientists said the tremor slightly shifted the Earth's rotation, altered the planet's shape and moved the North Pole several centimeters.
Following an undersea earthquake, automated buoys and tidal gauges record the changing water levels, from which scientists must quickly decide whether to issue a tsunami warning. Within 15 minutes of the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii knew of a possible tsunami, but could not spread the word without an early-warning network.
The only natural tsunami warning sign -- receding waters -- made tourists and locals more curious than afraid. Tsunami radio alerts weren't issued until after the waves had struck, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a strategic policy think tank focused on military, intelligence and national security matters.
But the Indian Ocean hadn't had any recent history of a disastrous tsunami.