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Tidal waves bring devastation
to 10 countries

Published courtesy of Auroville Today

Local village and Auroville coastal settlements affected Repos beach on a Sunday morning is usually a place of relaxation and fun. But Sunday, 26th 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 8.9 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 south India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Nicobar and Andaman Islands and the low-lying Maldives. Even Somalia and 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. But then reports came in of many huts and possessions being destroyed in the villages of Bommaiyapalayam, Pillaichavady and Kalapet, 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 emerged that the 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. Chennai was also hard hit. 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 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 geological 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. Many began to congregate in Kuilapalayam and Kottakarai villages which are on the plateau. Aurovilians set up an emergency tent-village 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. 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 Wednesday morning over 32,500 deaths had been confirmed in Sumatra alone, 18,700 in Sri Lanka, almost 4,500 in mainland India (with unconfirmed reports of a further 7,000 victims in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) and 1,500 in Thailand. As thousands are still missing in the 10 countries affected, these figures are bound to rise: it is likely that the final death-toll for all the countries affected will easily exceed 75,000. 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. The damage to the countries affected has been reckoned in billions of dollars and the number of people displaced in the hundreds of thousands. The Union Home Minister estimated that 70,000-80,000 people had been displaced in Tamil Nadu alone and a further 30,000 in Pondicherry State. Many of these families have lost not only their bread-winner 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. 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. Auroville has opened up two accounts for donations, one to assist the villagers and one for the reconstruction of Auroville beach communities (see accompanying box). On January 1st, a jazz benefit concert was 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 said the Centre would initiate measures to 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 mangrove forests provided good protection against the tidal waves and suggests the widespread regeneration of such forests. TSUNAMIS Tsunamis is Japanese for ‘harbour wave’. They are usually caused by underwater earthquakes. Part of the sea floor can snap abruptly upward while other areas sink. This abrupt displacement of huge volumes of water starts a series of waves that rush outwards. The waves travel very far and fast (at up to 800 kms an hour). At first the waves can be very far apart, and in deep water their crests are not high, making them difficult to detect by sight (they can be detected by special instruments placed on buoys). But when a tsunami approaches the shore, it slows down and its height grows. Previously separate tsunami waves may also merge. Depending on the shape of the seafloor off the coast, a tsunami may manifest as a surge or as wall of water. Waves can range from 6-20 metres when they hit the shore. A tsunami almost 50 metres high slammed into Alaska in 1958. The force of the water also means they can travel far inland before dissipating. On 26th December, some of the tidal waves hitting the coast of Sri Lanka penetrated up to two kilometres inland. Another phenomenon of tsunamis is that they tend to ‘suck’ water towards them as they approach the shoreline. In fact, one sign of an approaching tidal wave is that the sea suddenly goes out many hundred metres, exposing a huge new stretch of the seabed.