Sri Lanka Escapes Tsunami April 11 2012

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Tsunami Warning

A  twenty-six-year old British NGO intern on a short-term contract in Sri Lanka,  asks on her Facebook page why  people in Colombo are making such a fuss about earthquakes.

“Anyone else in SL felt earthquake tremors?”

“Not entirely sure why Colombo has become a ghost town and everyone seems in mass panic when a). we’re in Colombo and b). no waves have been reported.”

My wife has just been talking to her aunt who lives in Colombo. She said she felt the bed shake and has heard reports from other people around Colombo that they felt tremors. Colombo escaped the tsunami in 2004 but it is on the coast and there is no guarantee that it would escape if there was another huge wave.

When I saw the comment, I was not aware of the tsunami warning (we do not have a TV or radio) and I responded thus:

“Colombo becomes a ghost town this time every year because of the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. All the Tamil workers go home to their villages and the middle classes take advantage of the long weekend to go on trips to the country or the beaches.”

She responded.

“I know. But this mass migration was accompanied by panic.”

It would be surprising if people who remembered what happened in 2004 were not frightened at the prospect of the same thing happening again. There is a superstition that bad things happen at new year. One  could make a value judgement about this fear and label it “panic”. One might risk being thought lacking in compassion if one did so.

I checked out my news updates on the internet and saw that the Director General of Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Dr. N. P. Wijayananada had said a tsunami alert had been issued following  a US Geological Survey report of a 8.6 magnitude earthquake centred 20 miles (33 km) beneath the ocean floor, around 269 miles (434 km) from Aceh’s provincial capital. There had been three aftershocks of 8.2, 6.0 and 5.2 on the Richter scale. “We are still on alert,” he said.

Could It Happen Again?

I responded  thus: “I know that you have been in Sri Lanka only a very brief time but surely you must have read about the horror that was the tsunami of 2004. See: Can you really blame people for panicking when a new earthquake is reported? People we knew very well died in the tsunami and that is typical of everyone here. Please don’t belittle the fear.”

She responded:  “Yes, I am well aware of what happened and the devastation it caused. And I could understand the panic/fear/worry if waves had been reported when I was outside and witnessed all this chaos, or we were on the East/South coast. But people are obviously not following the news updates.”

I am not sure what point she is making here. Is  she saying because she felt no tremors and saw no waves there is nothing to worry about? The huge wave happened very suddenly in 2004. Is she saying people are behaving stupidly or irrationally?

The 2004 Tsunami Affected All Sri Lankans

The 2004 earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. Lasting up to ten minutes, the earthquake had the longest duration ever recorded. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska. The number of casualties cannot be accurately stated. In Sri Lanka, the authorities reported 36,000 dead and 5,644 missing. There were 21,441 injured, 516,150 internally displaced.

A friend of my wife’s family, was killed with her brother on a bus in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. We stay at her husband’s apartment in Mount Lavinia from time to time and he  is still from survivor’s  guilt.

Galle bus station

A strange phenomenon was noted in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?

The south and east coasts were most badly affected. Up to  2500 passengers on the holiday train, Queen of the South, perished as the wave engulfed it at Peraliya, between Colombo and Galle. Only 824 bodies were actually recovered, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives without informing the authorities. The village itself also suffered heavy losses: hundreds of inhabitants died and out of 420 houses, only 10 were spared.

Some local survivors thought  the wrecked train was a curse upon Peraliya. Yet when the railway authorities set about removing the carriages during the rebuilding of the line, the villagers realised that the train was now part of their collective soul. They demanded its return. The carriages are still there, a rusting memorial. A fading poem from a husband to his lost wife written on the side of one carriage:

“Did the children and I come to you when the waves came?

Were the kids there with you when death came?

In eternity, do you want to be mine again?

Will you come back at least in my dreams?”

 Coping with the 2004 Tsunami

In 2004, the government was slow to react to the tsunami but an effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades. A local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success despite the understandable confusion which accompanied this effort at times. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils. Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system and community awareness of basic sanitary and hygienic practices ensured that there were no disease outbreaks. Essential medical aid, emergency food, and other relief supplies were mobilized within a day. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.

Twenty thousand soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.

Viewing the Devastation

We visited Hambantota on several occasions to give what small help we could. Just outside the town plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt, in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that fish were contaminated by corpses. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. A graveyard was littered with broken trees. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records could not account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.

A canal was clogged with orphaned furniture. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges.

There was mud everywhere and a smell like foul gas.

There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.

Sadeesha, a veterinarian we knew in Bandarawela, used to commute there every day from her home in Hambantota.  Sadeesha’s house had gone and her father had drowned.  The rest of the family were safe but had lost everything. One of Sadeesha’s neighbors showed us where his house had been. Now there were just the foundations. The neighbor had saved his daughter from the wave but then she was bitten by a dog. He could find no medicine.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of starving and desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service, led by Dr PAL Harischandra, courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and took the opportunity, with the support of tireless local vets, to carry out a program of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilization of dogs.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari (local government official) at Samodarama. Cynics  had warned us about the army pilfering but the major wanted us to deal directly with the people, rather than having us give supplies to him. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. Some Christian friends had suggested that the tsunami happened as a judgment of God because Buddhists had attacked Christian churches and opposed conversion. Others said Muslims were taking over the world. Buddhism has become contaminated by Sinhala nationalism and exploited by politicians. Some Sinhalese complain that western NGOs favored Tamils. The Tamil Tigers said the Sinhalese were preventing supplies getting to Tamil areas. Sri Lanka has suffered much ethnic and religious strife over the years, because of the divide and rule tactics of the British followed by the opportunism of the indigenous political elite, but here people seemed to be united in adversity. Nature did not discriminate.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone  to market with a child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. One woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All behaved with dignity but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”

A brilliant series of photos by JB Russell can be found at

Nona, mother of ten children in a fishing village on the south coast.

April 11 2012

We live far from the coast, 4,000 feet above sea level. I did not feel any tremors on April 11 2012. However, our four dogs became unusually agitated that evening. The Avurudha firecrackers were suddenly drowned out by the loudest thunderclap I have ever heard and for several hours we sat in darkness (all the fuses tripped) as deafening  claps and brilliant electric flashes succeeded each other with hardly any intervals. This may have been unrelated to the earthquake but it was damned scary.

Whatever  the NGO intern might have felt  or not felt in Colombo, the Aceh tremor of April 11 was reported to have been  felt in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said a tsunami watch was in effect for Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Maldives and other Indian Ocean islands, Malaysia, Pakistan, Somalia, Oman, Iran, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa and Singapore.

Minister of Disaster Management, Mahinda Samaraweera, urged people not to panic, but to move to safer areas. The government ordered the armed forces to move in to ensure criminal elements did not take advantage of the situation. The Sri Lankan Navy was ordered to take all vessels out to sea in case huge waves hit naval bases. The Meteorological Department advised citizens living in coastal areas to move to safe places. The department warned that there was the possibility of a tsunami striking Trincomalee on the east coast at 4.10 pm, Colombo at 4.50 pm and Jaffna on the northern tip at 6.00 pm. Sri Lanka Railways temporarily suspended all trains on the coastal belt and also the Puttalam line, while the southern coastal road was closed for traffic for several hours. The government announced that people could use the Southern highway toll-free in view of the emergency.

The government lifted the tsunami warning at 6. 30 p.m. A spokesman for the Information Department said that people could now return to their homes.

Can’t Do right for Doing Wrong

In 2004, the Sri Lanka government was criticised for not issuing a tsunami warning. Because it was a holiday period it seems that no-one was minding the shop. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee.

This presents a marked contrast with the US government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. US authorities reacted to Katrina with mind-boggling incompetence.

At another holiday season an earthquake is reported and the government, learning from its mistakes, takes what it believes is appropriate action. The Mancunian expression “Can’t do right for doing wrong” springs to mind. Is she condemning the government for causing unnecessary panic?  What if they had not issued tsunami warnings and there had been a big wave like in 2004? Damned if they do, dammed if they don’t.