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Vengeful Sea: The Christmas Tsunami

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A woman screams in grief as she mourns
the loss of her child.
I tag this as a news event because it is an anniversary. Not the kind you celebrate, but the kind where you look to God and ask how something like this could happen. It doesn't matter if you're a believer or not. When faced with this, where else could you possibly seek an answer?

In the final days of 2004, I'm bouncing back and forth between the inside of our house and the adjoining two-car garage. There are lots of smokers in my family, but there are little kids as well, so they venture out amongst the garage-turned-wood shop machinery at regular intervals to get their fix.

I often wander out there myself, braving the cumulus nimbus marlborous clouds, trying not to spend so much time that the smoke sticks to my clothes, but long enough to see what the crew is yapping about at the moment.

I've become something of a news aficionado over the years, so I usually find out about things well in advance of the rest of the clan. I often find myself wishing this wasn't the deal. I had the displeasure of informing my parents over the phone that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers one day back in September. I was playing Diablo II with a friend at the time, who had actually told me what was going on in-game.

Some years later I was watching the space shuttle Columbia return to the Earth after a successful mission in space. I had written an article about the mission just a few days earlier -- they were testing a new module that fit snugly inside the cargo bay like an inner liner, it was like a giant plug-in laboratory. The media had lost interest in the space program because there hadn't been any casualties resulting from accidents in quite a few years, not since Challenger. I saw that with my own eyes too, live on television when I was six years old.

Once again, this time on Christmas night, I became the bearer of bad news. An earth quake greater than 7 on the Richter scale had torn up the sea bed underneath the Indian Ocean, I told my mother. The event was already two hours old in Indonesia -- not one specific land mass but a collection of more than 17,000 islands.

Wednesday morning, I wrote the following based on what was known at the time.
I don't normally do news, but this is really important. Indonesia took some very hard hits from the Christmas Tsunami, and it just keeps getting worse for the unfortunate people who live there. Java, Indonesia, was struck by a magnitude 6.2 earthquake at 22:51:04 UTC, about 10 hours ago. CNN is reporting 270 dead, the New York Times says 450, while other news outlets are reporting as many as 1300 people have been killed. It is believed that the quake may have an impact on the already unstable volcano, Mount Merapi. As of 4:23AM EDT, none of the US 24-hour cable news networks are reporting on the story. Don't worry, I'm sure it'll all blow over, just like Katrina did.
The good news was that Merapi didn't erupt. The bad news was that the initial report of 1300 lives lost would eventually swell by a factor of 141. According to more recent studies of the event, the quake has been pegged at closer to 9.3, one of the strongest ever recorded.
Something very unusual happened just after we left Ambalangoda station. My son turned to me and said "Daddy, I'm not going to come back." I asked him why he was saying that. He said he was lonely at home. These were my son's last words.
To understand the damage caused by a Tsunami, you first must understand that a Tsunami isn't so much a wave traveling on the surface as it is an oceanic displacement. This earth quake was caused by tectonic plates ripping loose from each other with terrifying power and suddenness, with one plate shifting upwards by some estimates nearly twenty feet.

The change in subsurface geography shifted a significant chunk of the ocean internally and began pushing it outwards in all directions.

With the majority of the energy transfer existing subsurface, and unlike with a tidal wave, the safest place to be during a Tsunami is either very far inland, or on the ocean itself, so long as you aren't close enough to the shore to be carried in. In some cases it may not even be possible to detect that anything has occurred to a ship at sea.
This was a huge release of energy. (We're) talking about 62,000 Hiroshima's.
After the initial quake, the entire ocean began marching in all directions much like the localized storm surge from a hurricane. People on the beaches who initially saw what appeared to be a wave were soon inundated by an entire body of water.

You have thousands of cubic miles of water pushing towards the shores as the oceans depth decreases in a constant flow. The cruelest part of such disasters may not be the first flooding, but the subsequent flooding that occurs as the ocean essentially begins to slosh back and forth, compounded by the inevitable aftershocks that can in some cases nearly equal the original event in strength.

Historical data confirms this as the third wave of the Tsunami event was the most devastating in height and power.

The confirmed death toll two years later stands at over 184,000, with estimates reaching almost a quarter of a million. As many as 1.7 million people were displaced as a result of the Tsunami.
The train just stopped without warning. A large crowd ran towards it. Then we realized they were running because of the water. I managed to put my family on top of a house. We weren't worried about the first wave, we never thought there would be another. It was 25-35 feet high. It was loaded with cars and other vehicles. It was just huge. It came all at once.

My wife and son and daughter were swept away from me. I saw them being taken by the current. I was dragged off far away.

The water level went down, then I saw a man carrying someone wearing the same clothes as my daughter. I took my daughter from him. I left her with my wife. Then I looked for my son.

I looked for him everywhere, but I didn't find him.
The water near the shores did not rise gradually, but came in very swiftly, churning in between hotels like whitewater rapids, except the surface was thick with debris from all across the island. I saw a video of the waters flooding a river at least one hundred feet wide. You couldn't see water anywhere, the debris was so thick that a man was walking across its surface trying to reach the shore. When the waters carried the debris flow toward a bridge which was nearly submerged itself, the man disappeared from view. He was just gone.
People think of a 50 foot wave, but it's a 10 foot wave, two thousand feet long.
In reality, it was closer to 10,000 feet long, submerging buildings as high as fifteen feet off the ground nearly two miles inland.

The Tsunami was so powerful that it is believed that after nearly half a day, surge made its way across the entire Pacific ocean and lightly bumped into the West coast of the United States.

On this anniversary, I had forgotten much of what we had all seen during this passing weeks. With video now playing that I had never seen before, I find myself horrified again at the destructive power nature can wreak on us at any time.

When water has a mind to move, there is no force on Earth that can stop it. For all our power and greatness, our best defense is to run away before it washes us into oblivion.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.