Waves of tragedy

news: Waves of tragedy

Boxing Day 2004 will forever be remembered for one thing, and one thing only – the massive undersea earthquake, followed by a tsunami of 10-metre waves that violently hit many countries in South East Asia. It has been described as one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. With a reading of 9.0 on the Richter scale, it was the largest earthquake in 40 years and the fourth strongest since 1900. Most shocking was the extent of its reach, with hundreds of thousands of people, from Malaysia in the east to Somalia on the African coast in the west, killed in its wake.

The missing and the dead

As the confirmed death toll rises daily (145,000 people at the time of going to press), the tsunami may well earn itself a grim place in the record books. The highest death toll from a tsunami until now was recorded in 1896, when 27,000 people drowned following an earthquake off the coast of Japan. Searches are continuing to uncover bodies from beaches, while thousands of corpses rot under the debris of destroyed houses. As the true extent of the tsunami’s devastation becomes clear, an exact death figure may never be known. At the time of going to press, countries around the world reported the following figures – Germany: 60 dead, 1,000 missing; Sweden: 52 dead, 2,322 missing; Britain: 40 dead, 159 missing; France: 22 dead, 99+ missing; Italy: 18 dead, 540+ missing; Switzerland: 16 dead, 105 missing; US: 15 dead, Australia: 12 dead, 79 missing; Portugal: 8 missing, none officially confirmed dead.

Children left behind

Aid groups in India are concerned that orphans are being split among relatives, who are eager to obtain the money promised for tsunami survivors to care for the children.

Jayashree, aged three, like thousands of other children across Asia, lost her parents in the tsunami. Now she has been separated from her siblings by a grandmother who picked her up from a relief camp in Nagapattinam. The grandmother stands to collect 100,000 rupees (2,000 euros) promised by the State and another 100,000 rupees pledged by the federal government for being the closest surviving relative. Jayashree said, sadly, that her parents had ‘kizhakku poyirukkaanga’, or ‘gone east’, which, in her village of some 5,000 fishing families, meant going to the beach to trade fish. The government money is intended to go into fixed deposit accounts for the orphaned children to access when theyturn 18.

Portuguese aid at Portuguese speed

The Portuguese Ambassador in Bangkok, João Almeida, has been accused of gross negligence by the leader of the Juventude Popular (the Young Popular Party) and by the Vice President of the CDS-PP. They are planning to report his laid-back reaction to the tragedy to President Jorge Sampaio. Almeida was on holiday in Lisbon at the time the quake hit, but only flew to Thailand three days later in order to finish his holiday. He was, therefore, not quick enough to offer assistance and support to Portuguese families in their search for missing relatives.

Environmental pain

Environmental damage caused by the tsunami can take years to reverse and cause prolonged economic hardship. Popular diving locations in Sri Lanka, atolls in the Maldives and the southern Thai islands will suffer, as coral reefs would have been crushed by the huge waves and will take decades to recover. Tourists, who would have come to explore the waters, will probably choose other destinations in the future. Tourism was vital to the stricken countries, providing jobs for 19 million people in South East Asia. The damage extended to the fishing and farming industries, and other local businesses. Hundreds of thousands of buildings and boats were destroyed by the waves, leaving survivors dazed and wondering where to begin to rebuild their lives.

Economic aid

Analysts estimate the economic cost of the disaster to be around 14 billion US dollars. Britain, with US backing, called for a freeze on foreign debts owed by the affected countries. “What we are suggesting is an immediate moratorium on debt repayments from the afflicted countries,” UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, said. In relation to the postponement of the debt, he said: “We are talking initially about three billion dollars in debt repayment each year by the most affected countries.” Brown hopes to announce a deal at a meeting of the Paris Club group of creditor nations when it meets on January 12.

The UN has said that the two billion dollars raised by 40 countries for the victims is greater than all the donations made to humanitarian appeals in 2004 put together. Some of the countries around the world which have donated money (amounts in millions of dollars): Australia 46.48, Belgium 16.32, Britain 96, Canada 66, China 0.42, Denmark 54.88,

US 31.29, Finland 6.12, France 66.38, Germany 27.21, Hungary 0.37, Italy 95, Japan 500, Netherlands 34, New Zealand 3.60, Portugal 10.88, Spain 68.02, Sweden 80, Turkey 1.25, US 350.

Rays of hope

These tales – and hopefully there are many more like them – will become part of the folklore surrounding the miraculous survivals of the catastrophe.

In Banda Aceh, Sumatra (Indonesia), rescued fisherman, Sofyan, was at sea when the tsunami hit. His boat was tossed onto the beach at Lampulo, where he was trapped for a week without food and water. He was the first missing victim discovered alive since last Friday. On another island, eight-month-old Michael Jeremiah slipped out of his mother’s arms and sank into the sea, until his father saw his toe poke up from the waves and brought him back to life. A Malaysian family said their 20-day-old baby girl survived by floating on a mattress, after the tsunami swept them out of their restaurant. Newborn, Suppiah Tulasi, was sleeping in a back room of her parents’ restaurant, on the island of Penang, when the huge waves struck. It swept her parents and most of the customers out of the restaurant. When Suppiah’s parents struggled back into the severely damaged building, they discovered their baby crying, floating on a mattress in the five feet deep waters. One of the most touching stories took place on India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A woman who escaped the killer waves gave birth in the forest – she named her son Tsunami.