The Terror of Tsunamis

Tales of tidal waves from William T. Vollmann, James Traub, Dan Baum and others.
6 stories

"A massive earthquake off Indonesia's western coast triggered a tsunami watch for countries across the Indian Ocean on Wednesday, clogging streets with traffic as residents fled to high ground in cars and on the backs of motorcycles," The Associated Press reports. "Two hours after the quake hit, however, there was no sign of the feared wave. Damage also appeared to be minimal." Those present were doubtless remembering the devastating tsunami that hit the same region in December 2004 when 170,000 people died.

Weeks after that disaster James Traub reported on the devastation. "One of the most eerie aspects of the tsunami that engulfed coastal areas of the Indian Ocean rim Dec. 26 is that the destructive waves generally spent their force soon after hitting the coast," he wrote in Slate. "Villages located uphill or slightly inland often emerged unscathed while low-lying areas several hundred yards away were decimated. If you didn't live, work, shop, or vacation near the water's edge, you were, in general, quite safe. Alas, then, for the Maldives, where everybody lives and works on the water's edge. None of the 200 inhabited islands that constitute this micro-nation is broad enough to have an 'inland.'"

Sam Lightner described the scene elsewhere. "Phi Phi Town sits more or less at sea level, a jumble of wooden shops, bamboo shacks, and brick bungalows crowded on a thin isthmus of sand that separates Dalam Bay, to the north, and Tonsai Bay, the island's main entry, to the south," he wrote. "Any view of the ocean itself is cut off by two massifs of 300-million-year-old limestone jutting nearly a thousand feet out of the sea. And so, at a little after ten that morning, as beachgoers and climbers sat drinking coffee and eating pastries or putting on their first coat of sunblock, no one could see the massive swell approaching from the west."

Dan Baum chronicled the relief effort led by the US military. "Expeditionary Strike Group Five was in many ways the perfect response to the tsunami. No other agency responding to the disaster had anywhere near its capabilities," he wrote. "The Bonhomme Richard alone would have been a godsend to the people of Sumatra. Commissioned in 1998 and named for John Paul Jones’s privateer, she was designed to be the Marine Corps’s dream boat....In addition to being a seaborne platform from which to launch land assaults, the ship could serve as a floating emergency room and thus free the Marines of having to treat their wounded in rudimentary and vulnerable field hospitals."

And Tim Folger remarked on the impact this type of disaster can have. "Tsunamis strike somewhere in the world almost every year, and giant ones have arguably changed history," he noted. "In 1755, when an earthquake and tsunami killed tens of thousands in Lisbon, the tragedy had a lasting impact on Western thought: It helped demolish the complacent optimism of the day. In Voltaire's novel Candide the blinkered philosopher Pangloss arrives in Lisbon during the catastrophe, persists in arguing that 'all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,' and gets hanged for his trouble. Voltaire's withering satire made it a little harder to be Panglossian—to believe that a benevolent God designed an optimal Earth."

From the Web

Letter from the Indian Ocean

The marines of Expeditionary Strike Group Five take on the tsunami.

Feb 2005
From the Web

Tsunami Tour with Kofi Annan

The plight of the plucky Maldives.
Jan 2005
From the Web

The Calm before the Wave

Where and when will the next tsunami hit?

From the Web

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.
From the Web

There Can’t Be a Word for This

The catastrophic Christmas tsunami hit Thailand’s climbing meccas hard. The writer, a Railae Beach resident, reports on the nightmares and miracles of the aftermath—and on the Thais and expats rebuilding their slice of paradise.

Mar 2005

Into the Forbidden Zone

In this excerpt from his Byliner Original, acclaimed novelist William T. Vollmann returns to northern Japan a month after the earthquake crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to survey the radiation levels and talk to survivors.
May 2011