The drama started at 7am local time in Indonesia when an earthquake of between 9.1 and 9.3 magnitude struck the sea between the west coast of Sumatra and the small island of Simeule. The event lasted an unprecedented ten minutes tearing a massive rupture 1,600 kms long. It was either the second or third highest magnitude earthquake of the 20th century. The shift of mass and release of energy very slightly altered the Earth’s rotation. It caused the seabed to rise several metres displacing billions of tonnes of sea water in the process.
Because of the north-south 1,600km fissure caused by the quake, the greatest waves went east and west. It took half an hour for the wall of water to reach landfall on the Sumatran Coast. In Northern Aceh waves rising 20 metres travelled almost a kilometer inland. Coastal villages were devastated losing up to 70 percent of inhabitants. 167,000 people were killed in Indonesia and another 37,000 missing. An estimated 655,000 people were made homeless.
After another hour, the waves hit southern Thailand and its west coast islands sweeping locals and tourists off the beaches. 8,000 people died in Phuket, Phi Phi and elsewhere and a similar number were injured. At the same time the westerly-heading 10m high waves slammed into the east coast of Sri Lanka killing another 35,000 people and made over a million and a half homeless. A further 68 people died in Malaysia. By another half hour, it was taking severe casualties in India’s Tamil Nadu and Burma. The waves demolished railways, bridges, telecommunications facilities and harbours. The salt water contaminated large tracts of rich arable land.
And still it kept coming. After another 90 minutes, the tsunami engulfed the low-lying Maldives killing 100 people and displacing another 20,000. And two and half hours later – six hours after the original quake – the mammoth waves made landfall in Somalia. 300 people died there with 50,000 made homeless and many more livelihoods lost as 2,500 boats were destroyed. Most deaths were caused by asphyxiation from the silt and sand in the “black water” of the tsunami.
A massive worldwide relief operation began almost immediately. The biggest ever peacetime launch of military relief effort arrived in Aceh led by emergency teams from Australia, India, Japan and the US. Apart from immediate medical needs, the biggest threat was secondary death from famine and disease. One of the most important early tasks in Sumatra was to provide purification plants and potable water. This was difficult in a region where the Indonesian army was hauling over a thousand bodies a day from rivers. Forensic scientists were stretched to the limit to identify the deceased. The process was complicated by sweltering heat, inconsistencies in data collection procedures used in each country and jurisdictional challenges. Port, road and transport facilities also needed to be restored.
Undermining the recovery effort was the influx of aid workers and media personnel who consumed scarce resources, making the cost of living soar. There were at least 500 journalists and news crews in the affected zone. The sensationalism of much of the reporting added to the trauma of the survivors. Aceh did eventually recover and the tsunami had one unintended benefit; it brought an end to the long running war between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists.
Dealing with earthquakes will always be one a peril of living in geologically active Sumatra. As recently as October, over 500 people were killed and thousands trapped under rubble when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck West Sumatra. But no-one will erase the memory of 26 December, 2004. As one 10 year old girl told AFP “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t forget. It’s the same for my friends who survived.”