Tsunami & Its Aftermath
Posted by webmaster on July 17 2007 16:22:25

Little is known about the Tsunami by the public and the medical fraternity is no exception to this reality. Chennai, the capital city of Tamilnadu and many others in south coastal India, woke up to an unprecedented natural calamity on Sunday December 26, 2004. I was part of the Emergency Medical Response Team from the Emergency Department of CMC Vellore. About a year and a half has rolled by, but my memories are fresh as I reminisce the events.

Tsunami - Its genesis and its implications

Tsunami (Japanese for harbour wave) is a large wave generated when the sea floor is deformed by seismic (earthquake) activity, vertically displacing the overlying water in the ocean. Although undersea earthquakes are the most common cause of tsunamis, submarine landslides, underwater volcanic eruptions and the large meteorites plunging into the sea can also set off these killer waves. Throughout recorded history, tsunamis have caused significant damage to coastal communities all over the world. A tsunami can race across the water at speeds of 500 to 1,000 km per hour and can be 10 to 20 m high when it hits the shore. Moreover, a tsunami is not one giant wave, but a series of waves that come ashore at intervals of 10 to 45 minutes.

Sumatra is around 2,500 km from the Indian coast and was the site for the epicentre of the earthquake, with a recorded amplitude of 7 on the Richter scale. Andaman and Nicobar Islands experienced the maximum shocks, as they were situated 500 km away from the epicentre. The earthquake hit the Indian coast within five minutes after it struck Sumatra. "There were no signs, no warnings. It was all over before we could realize recalls Kumar, a fisherman.

Murugan, along with other fishermen, was returning with a fish catch, after a hard nights work. Around 9 a.m., he steered his boat towards the shore and saw the beach just ahead. As he and the others were preparing to tug the boat into the sands, Kumar felt that the sea was swelling. "Surprisingly, the boat did not touch the beach where it usually does. The waves did not break on the beach but kept advancing into the sands, taking my boat along - right to the place where our shacks stood," he said. "I jumped into the water as my boat kept ramming other boats. As we swam, we saw the waves sweeping our boats up to the road."

Tsunami and the Indian Subcontinent

The Pacific Ocean is the place where most tsunamis occur and countries in and around the Pacific are aware and prepared with Tsunami Warning Systems. However, the Indian Ocean and its shores are ill-informed since the last significant Tsunami occurred more than 60 years ago. Hence, the present Tsunami was truly an unexpected and ill-prepared event. Preliminary estimates showed that at least one lakh houses have been washed away by the giant waves. A week after the tsunami struck the coast, the death toll was 7,793 and bodies continued to be recovered from the debris in Nagapattinam, a town on the eastern shore in Tamilnadu.

Selective destruction

The tsunami had been peculiarly selective in the manner of its destruction. Thick groves of coconut palms were still standing, even on the edge of the water in full possession of their greenery. However, all trace of buildings and man-made structures were obliterated; villages along the shore were erased. It was as if the land had been hit by a weapon devised to cause the maximum possible damage to life and property, while leaving nature largely unharmed.

My journey of enlightenment

Being an Emergency physician, having studied Disaster Medicine as part of my training, having been involved in Mass Casualty incidents; on-site medical response for techno-industrial accidents, etc., I thought I had adequate knowledge and a plan of action when our team departed to the tsunami-struck areas on December 27th. What accosted us was truly unfathomable. The magnitude of destruction, the loss of lives, the sudden degradation of humanity, and the paralysis of the administrative machinery was indeed my journey of enlightenment.

I saw dead bodies strewn every where - on the roads, under debris; I saw a chair on a tree; a television by the roadside; a blanket in the slush. I learnt that the tsunami spared no one who stood in its way; there was no morbidity, only mortality; I realized that earthquakes leave behind materials which could be dug out from debris, but not the tsunami, which took everything back to the bottom of the ocean.

It dawned on me that in India, we citizens are kept afloat on a life-raft of paper: identity cards, licences, ration cards, school certificates, cheque books, certificates of life insurance and receipts for fixed deposits. The tsunami took the lives of the dead and the identity of the survivors; in the suddenness of its onslaught, it allowed no preparation: not only did it destroy the survivors' homes and decimate their families; it also robbed them of all the evidentiary traces of their place in the world.

We returned home after a week, tired, yet gratified that our band of 9 volunteers had set up 18 camps and had provided medical care for 2879 people. We were part of the work force that was involved in the biggest-ever peacetime rescue and relief operation in India. We had been fore-runners for a major rehabilitation which would extend beyond international borders.

I had been enriched in philosophy - the fragility of life, the fact that we could rebuild houses and replace boats; help the hapless to limp back to their normal lives, but in no way could we substitute the lives of their loved ones who were whisked away on that fateful Sunday in December 2004.

Dr. Suresh David,

Professor, Dept of A&E, CMC-Vellore