ON AUGUST 22 1999, a huge tidal wave was spotted on the horizon and most of the south-facing beaches in the Algarve were rapidly evacuated. Those tourists who remained on the region’s golden sands, blissfully unaware of the impending disaster, were mercifully spared the potential maelstrom, as the wall of water turned out to be no more than an illusion, a reflection created by sea and sun.
This Christmas, the horrific scenario conjured up by nature in Portugal became a nightmarish reality in South East Asia. At precisely 8am local time on Boxing Day, the world ended in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and many other neighbouring countries, a sea quake of biblical proportions wreaking death and destruction as far away as Somalia on the East African coast. Around 150,000 people were left dead in its wake, with many more to be claimed by the ravages of the ensuing water-borne diseases that cannot be contained. Armageddon is here!
What happened? In short, the earth moved, opening a huge chasm on the seabed just off the coast of Sumatra, the quake hitting nine on the Richter Scale. Waves travelling at up to 500mph were triggered, building up to 30ft in height by the time they hit land. Water was described as rising out of the sea without warning, many people still swimming, sunbathing or going through the motions of their everyday lives.
Indonesia was the first to be struck, less than an hour after the rupture, and was followed by the popular tourist destinations of Thailand and Malaysia two hours later. It was 10am or later, giving tourists and locals alike ample time to have breakfast and go to the beach. The Maldives were overcome five hours later and 210 people died along the coast of East Africa another two hours on. The devastation caused now makes this the fourth deadliest natural disaster in modern history. The December 26 tsunami is only surpassed in its violence by the Yangtse river floods of 1931 and 1975, killing 3.7 million and 200,000 Chinese, respectively, and the vicious cyclone to hit Bangladesh in 1970, claiming 500,000 lives.
As callous as it may sound, the big difference this time was the fact that people from all over the world – America, Britain, Scandinavia, were directly affected. The Far Eastern holiday resort coastline, a paradise built on the poverty of the indigenous populations, offers no natural or man-made defences against such an unnatural, natural onslaught. The paradise became a killing ground, which slaughtered the innocent.
As in all times of desperate need, some miracles occurred to lift the battered human spirit, impotent when faced by nature’s might. Babies were found floating alive and well on airbeds, children picking their way through the debris, somehow spared. A British scuba diver regained consciousness on the top of a hotel roof, transported unharmed from the depths of the normally tranquil ocean. A shark came to his senses in the confines of a hotel pool. A Sri Lankan wildlife reserve was evacuated by its endangered species, a sixth sense driving them away from impending doom to seek higher ground.
In the west, the aid effort slowly gathered momentum. Comparatively derisory efforts by the British and American governments were increased after the full extent of the horror became apparent and it is now estimated that over the required one billion euros has been raised worldwide. It is the largest single such action the international community has ever known – individuals in Britain alone donating in excess of 80 million euros. As enormous as these sums may appear, I am not sure if they will suffice to restore what has been taken. And more can be done. Just consider that the US post-war budget, passed by the Senate last year, amounts to 80 billion euros.
Above all, the money collected has to be put to proper use. It has to buy doctors, medicine, food and reconstruction on a continuing basis, until the dangers of an even deadlier aftermath have passed. These are the factors that concern me gravely and I would be grateful to anyone who can explain pictures of tourists back on the beaches, sunbathing, the day after the tsunami struck.
Before I close and we sit back and disassociate ourselves from the television pictures beaming into our supposedly safe homes on a daily basis – a form of therapy in itself, death repeated over and over again gaining a degree of normality in our perception – consider this. Sophisticated monitoring equipment picks up about 300 minor quakes in Britain every year.
Over 7,500 years ago, a giant collapse of the Norwegian seabed at Storegga resulted in 45ft tidal waves along the coast of Scotland. More recently, in 1755, the largest earthquake ever measured occurred off the Portuguese coast destroying Lisbon and killing, it is believed, close to 60,000 people. The resulting tsunami rolled into the English Channel sinking ships and transporting sediment from the seabed to cover most coastal areas.
Today, similar or worse scenarios could emanate from tectonic plate movements south of Iceland, a potentially violent collision being a possibility at all times. More spectacularly, scientists have warned that an eruption of the Vieja volcano on La Palma, in the Canaries, could cause a large piece of the mountain to fall off. Such a rockslide would cause a dome of water almost 3,000ft high to rise creating a tsunami that would flood all low-lying areas in Western Europe, even affecting New York, Miami and the Caribbean.
Drastic climate changes, in particular global warming, bring the possibility of such threats ever closer. Yet nothing is being done to prevent, protect or warn those who will bear the brunt. Until now, we are left with two possibilities – move into the hills or believe it will never happen, something that recent events and science disprove. The fatalistic among us could say ‘que sera, sera’, the faithful pray. The fantasist could blame other worlds, the unwelcome intrusion of the US space probe on December 26 sparking immediate retribution. Mystics may pour over the predictions of Nostradamus, falling buildings and gigantic waves spelling the end of the world in the 21st century. Or we could be realists and take better care of our paradise.