27/12/2004

Sumata Earthquake and Tsunami

I received phone calls last night from friends and family concerned about our proximity to the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunamis which struck South and South East Asia yesterday. We let them know that we were fine, and a bit surprised at the eventual extent of this event.

The main tremor was felt in Kuala Lumpur about 9am local time, and some residents in adjacent condominiums were evacuated, more as a precautionary measure. But the tremor was strong enough to shake buildings and furniture.

It's amazing then to report that we actually slept through it! In fact, it was not until late afternoon that the full extent of the disaster was being realised. BBC World was providing extensive coverage from then until after midnight, when we retired for the night. At that point, the death tool was more than 7000. We now know that is is at least 11000 - this will inevitably climb higher.

Malaysia, usually spared from such disasters, was hit by large waves in the islands of Penang, Langkawi and the main coastline. The latest death toll for Malaysia is 53, but around 40 are still missing. There are likely to be more bodies, as rescuers reach the more remote areas. A handful of blogs on BBC News revealed that the west coast of Langkawi was hit by a large set of waves, and the airport was closed (BBC News links are
here and here - do a text search for Langkawi). So far, one person has been found dead there. There's been no official word on the fate of Pantai Cenang, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island. Apart from two small islands in front of the beach, there is no other protection from the open water there. Newsgroup postings are appearing concerning Langkawi, via Google Groups.

I was a bit concerned about going to work today, as I, like many others working in KL, reside in tall office blocks. The Petronas Towers are okay, but I doubt I would have wanted to be high up there when the quake struck. The towers can bend as much as 2 metres in either direction, due to high winds. Since it's still standing, I guess it passed this particular test.

Live seismic data reveals that the epicentre is still geologically active, people living along the coast are being evacuated, in case more aftershocks come and create more tsunamis.

In comparison to other countries, Malaysia got off relatively lightly. Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Burma, the Maldives, even the eastern coast of Africa, were not spared. Sri Lanka and India in particular, have borne the brunt of the effect of the tsunamis. At least 11000 people are though to have died so far, countries such as Burma have remained silent.

The Thai island of Phuket was hit very badly, the stories being told on BBC News, and other news channel websites reveal the extent and speed of the destruction. A regular pattern emerges; the water level myseriously resides far out to sea, locals and tourists go down to the beach to investigate, in some cases, locals go and catch stranded fish, then all of a sudden, the huge wave comes in and swamps them; the coastline is flooded; then the worst part; the water recedes, creating a strong undertow - this is thought to be the reason why so many people drowned, they simply could not fight the sheer power of it.

Buddha did say that life is suffering. In the light of recent events, I couldn't agree more...
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