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January 2005

Tidal waves bring devastation

- by Alan

Local villages and Auroville coastal settlements badly hit

Repos beach on a Sunday morning is usually a place of relaxation and fun. But Sunday, 26 th December was different. For, beginning at around 8.30 that morning, a series of huge waves hit the beach and flooded into Repos community. “The first one was maybe four metres high,” wrote Anton at the time, “the next ones were less. It all looks like a ‘tsunami', caused by an undersea earthquake.”

It was a good guess. A ‘tsunami' or series of tidal waves had been triggered by a massive quake—measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale, the biggest worldwide in 40 years—off the west coast of Sumatra , over 2000 kilometres away. The quake displaced massive amounts of water which struck Sumatra and Thailand but which also raced across the Indian Ocean to crash with devastating force onto the coasts of the Nicobar and Andaman Islands , Sri Lanka , southern India , Bangladesh , and the low-lying Maldives . Even Somalia and some other East African countries were affected.

At first, the scale of the devastation was not realized. Repos itself escaped relatively lightly, as did the community of Quiet to the south: Pondicherry town was virtually untouched. But then reports came in of many homes being destroyed in nearby villages and of the deaths of villagers (almost 20 in Kalapet alone), particularly among the fishing communities which live close to the water's edge. In fact, it soon became clear that villages and Auroville communities to the north of Repos had been very hard hit: although no Aurovilians or visitors were missing or seriously injured by the waves, there were a number of close escapes as houses were devastated in Sri Ma and Eternity was almost completely destroyed.

Further afield Chennai was also badly affected. Here 131 people were washed away, including walkers and children playing cricket on the Marina Beach, while one of the atomic reactors at nearby Kalpakkam power plant was shut down when seawater entered the plant. The vast majority of fatalities, however, were in Nagapattinam district in south Tamil Nadu.

In the immediate aftermath there was panic and shock in the seaside villages near Auroville. As there were warnings that further tsunamis could be generated by aftershocks, (17 aftershocks were actually registered by monitoring stations in the next two days, but of a much lesser intensity than the original quake) many villagers fled to higher ground, carrying whatever they could of their possessions. Some began to congregate in Kuilapalayam and Kottakarai villages which are on the plateau. Within an hour of the tsunami striking the coast, a group of Aurovilians came together to organize emergency aid.

A tent-village was set up near New Creation to provide shelter, blankets and food to the displaced villagers, who soon numbered over 1,000, and a relief centre was created in a Night School in Kottakarai to care for after another 200 villagers.

The Villupuram Collector visited the following day and thanked Auroville for its efforts and timely intervention.

Meanwhile residents of Auroville beach communities put out an urgent call for Aurovilians to assist them in cleaning up the mess and in guarding whatever was left (as all the fences had been swept away by the water, there were security concerns).

At noon on Sunday the BBC announced that several hundred people had been killed by the tsunami in south India and Sri Lanka . This figure was soon revised steeply upwards. By Friday morning over 80,000 deaths had been confirmed in Indonesia , 27,000 in Sri Lanka , over 7,000 in mainland India (6,200 in Tamil Nadu alone) with unconfirmed reports of up to 6,500 victims in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands , and 1,500 in Thailand . As thousands are still missing in the 11 countries affected (in Sumatra , in particular), these figures are bound to rise: it is likely that the final death-toll for all the countries affected will exceed 150,000. Worldwide, 500,000 people have been injured in the destruction and up to 5 million displaced. As one expert put it, “A tsunami of this size happens only once in a generation.”

By Wednesday what was described by a U.N. Relief Coordinator as “the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen” was swinging into action as governments and relief organizations around the world rushed supplies and aid personnel to the countries affected. Apart from the human cost, the damage to the countries affected has been reckoned in billions of dollars (the cost to the southern states of India alone has been preliminarily estimated by the Indian Government to be $1.18 billion). The Union Home Minister estimated that 100,000 families have been displaced in Tamil Nadu and a further 30,000 in Pondicherry State . Many of these families have lost not only their bread-winner and livelihood but also their houses and all their possessions. But the horror for the survivors is not necessarily over: now there is the danger of communicable diseases breaking out. Moreover, wherever the tsunami reached (in some places up to 3 kilometres inland) the soil and water is now heavily polluted and salinated, making it utterly useless for cultivation and drinking purposes.

The Chief Minister of Tami Nadu, Jayalalithaa, has assured the affected people that the Government will adequately compensate them, while the Central Government has immediately allocated 25 crores rupees to the Pondicherry administration to assist with disaster relief. Various Relief Funds have also been set up by private and public organizations in India . In Auroville, the Auroville Tsunami Relief Committee has been formed (contact: Tsunami@auroville.org.in). Based in an office opposite the Aurelec compound, this is coordinating immediate relief and long-term rehabilitation for the local villages and Auroville settlements affected. While the first basic relief needs (rice, clothing and cash) have been provided by the government, the Tsunami Relief Committee is concentrating upon providing resources and services not provided by other agencies—like trunks with locks in which the survivors can keep their belongings—and organizing daily clean-ups of the affected areas. The Relief Committee has also been requested by other NGOs working on tsunami relief to act as a central node for sharing information among them: the necessary computer systems are now being installed.

The longer-term needs of the survivors are for housing (500 homes have been destroyed in the villages close to Auroville) and, for those who wish to return to their old occupation, fishing boats and nets. Two accounts for donations, one to assist the villagers and one for the reconstruction of Auroville beach communities, have been opened. Two concerts have also been put on by Aurovilians to raise additional funds.

This was the first tsunami in over 60 years to hit Tamil Nadu. However, as this quake happened on an active fault-line which stretches from south of Sumatra to as far north as the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, the east coasts of India and Sri Lanka are clearly in a danger zone. What can be done to prevent such destruction in the future? It's been pointed out that if there had been a tsunami early-warning system covering the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal , like the one that already operates in the Pacific Ocean , many lives could have been saved. After all, it took over two hours for the tsunami to travel from the epicentre of the quake to the coastline of India . The Minister for Science and Technology has now said that the Centre would put together a system that would provide advance warning of tsunamis. This may involve, among other things, India joining the International Coordination Group of the Tsunami Warning System.

Dr. M.S.Swaminathan, ex-Chairman of the Auroville Foundation, also pointed out that coastal shelter belts and mangrove forests provided good protection against the tidal waves and suggests the widespread regeneration of such forests. Meanwhile, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, has suggested that a coastal wall be constructed all the way from Chennai to Kanyakumari to prevent such devastation happening in the future.

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