TOPICS > Science

Tsunami Causes Destruction in South Asia

December 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Asia. We start with this overview from correspondent Paul Davies of Independent Television News.

PAUL DAVIES: A wall of water on a collision course with Thailand’s Phuket coastline. The tourist who took these pictures was lucky to be on a high building. The screams you can hear are from people less fortunate as a paradise beach resort is devastated.

TOURIST SCREAMING: It’s coming again! It’s coming again!

PAUL DAVIES: Here a tourist on the beach suddenly appreciating the danger runs for his life with a giant wave in fast pursuit.


PAUL DAVIES: Incredible images of an appalling disaster. Along with trees, boats and wooden buildings, hundreds of people were simply washed away here. An ITV news producer on her honeymoon was lucky to escape with cuts and bruises.

DI RIDLEY, ITV-News: I myself was out swimming in the sea with my husband when all of a sudden we heard screams from the beach to return to the shore. We had no idea why. I started to return to the beach and as soon as I got there, I turned my back again and to see what I can only describe as a wall of water approaching.

FEMALE TOURIST: Oh my God, look it’s just coming in now right over the swimming pool.

PAUL DAVIES: This is Sri Lanka where another British tourist is just starting to realize the power of the wave that is now swallowing the hotel swimming pool.

FEMALE TOURIST: Get inside. Come on, guys!

PAUL DAVIES: No one has suffered more than the island of Sri Lanka. Here, a train tossed like a toy by nature’s raw power. Buses scattered by the water. More than 12,000 people have died, including hundreds of foreign holiday makers. This was the Malaysian coast as the same tragedy is played out.

Tourists at first not realizing the deadly potential of the waves crashing on the beach, staying to watch and take pictures — until too late they realize the danger. In Indonesia, there are so many dead, bodies lie in makeshift morgues in the street awaiting identification.

The Indonesian government has warned the final death toll could be 10,000. In Southern India, a mother weeps for a drowned child. More than 6,000 lives were lost here and mass burials have begun already – a disaster that claimed western tourists elsewhere, here striking the poorest villagers.

GWEN IFILL: Now, how this disaster came to be, and what is being done in its wake. Jim Devine is senior science advisor to the director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

And Gail Neudorf is the deputy emergency director at CARE, a global humanitarian group operating in the countries affected by the weekend’s disaster.

Jim Devine, I’m going to ask you for a course in Science 101 for those of us who don’t follow these things. We have some animation that will help walk us through it. How could an earthquake underwater create the tsunami we saw today?

JIM DEVINE: The origin of earthquakes of this type come from the collision of two of the major plates in the Earth’s crust. In this case, the India plate is being driven in under the Burma plate.

And when this happens, it causes large-scale immediate uplifting of the terrain under the water, that creates a massive wave. That wave travels very efficiently across the ocean. And so it shows up hundreds and even thousands of miles away with much of the same energy that it started with.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like it’s a very rare occurrence.

JIM DEVINE: In the Indian Ocean, it is rare. And the Pacific Ocean, it is much more common and consequently we are better able to deal with the Pacific type events. This one is so rare the countries are not prepared to deal with it.

GWEN IFILL: Is this an unprecedented magnitude — I think 9.0 earthquake magnitude?

JIM DEVINE: That’s not an unprecedented magnitude size. It may be unprecedented tsunami size. Magnitude nine earthquakes do occur about once every decade. On this fault structure, it is unusual but not entirely unexpected.

GWEN IFILL: Compare it for us to other kinds of natural disasters or other kinds of earthquakes which we are familiar with. I asked Jan Egeland about that earlier as well.

JIM DEVINE: Ones the United States people would know about is 1964, the Great Alaskan earthquake. It was about a nine also. And that created a huge tsunami, by the way. It went entirely across the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the four or five largest earthquakes since 1900. So this is considered a great earthquake.

GWEN IFILL: Was it technologically possible to for there would be a warning in advance of this?

JIM DEVINE: Technologically yes. There are other reasons why they would not be there. As you just heard spoken, they are so rare in the Indian Ocean. And a system to record, identify and get the word out to all the countries is expensive.

And for something that only happens once every 100 years or so, it is very difficult to justify having such a system. We only put one in place in the Pacific Ocean in 1967 after the 1964 earthquake, which killed many people in Hawaii and even in California. So, yes, it’s technologically possible but there are many reasons why it wasn’t in place.

GWEN IFILL: Are any of those reasons about the ability of countries to get along together and agree on what to do?

JIM DEVINE: I don’t know. I don’t know that it ever got that far to find out because people who have, in the developing world, have many other problems to deal with show up far higher on the scale of things to solve than a tsunami that may not occur for 100 years.

So I don’t know whether it is a political problem. It’s just a fact of life. You deal with the most difficult problems first. This one doesn’t show up very high.

GWEN IFILL: How about the Atlantic Ocean? You say the Pacific Ocean has these warnings -


GWEN IFILL: — and the Indian Ocean didn’t?

JIM DEVINE: Okay. The Indian Ocean does not, still does not. And there is no such system in the Atlantic Ocean also, but, again, the reason for that is large scale tsunamis are extremely rare in the Atlantic.

There are some in history but they’re mostly local — 1755 in Portugal, affected Europe and Africa but not much elsewhere. Local ones in the Caribbean have caused damage in the Caribbean but it doesn’t go ocean wide the way they do in the Pacific. Consequently there is not a system in the Atlantic.

GWEN IFILL: Gail Neudorf, we are talking about the effect on ten different countries here; which areas are the hardest hit and the hardest to get — the most difficult to get relief to?

GAIL NEUDORF: Well, the hardest hit have been India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia, as you have been hearing. And a lot of these areas are very rural, very isolated, small villages.

And those are going to be the most difficult; particularly as a lot of the infrastructure has also been washed away, air strips and roads. It is going to become more and more difficult to just get in there and get some of the most basic supplies to people.

GWEN IFILL: It has only been a few days since this happened. How much relief effort is already under way?

GAIL NEUDORF: I think there are significant efforts of getting the basic resources together, particularly water, because of the contamination issues of saltwater and as well as dirts and other pollutions in the water systems.

And we have basic food needs as well as complete harvests have been washed away and shelter. So all of these materials are required and slowly they are coming in as we are able to resource them within the countries themselves.

GWEN IFILL: How do relief agencies begin to decide what to do first, especially when the damage is so widespread in so many different countries and affects so many people?

GAIL NEUDORF: Well, in CARE’s case what we are probably first able to do is go to the areas where we are already working, and using our network with the communities and the staff that we have there, we can start the assessment right there on the spot.

And often we do have some basic resources available that are immediately given out to people, especially again in terms of basic water and food and a little bit of the social support that’s required for people that are very, very traumatized. And from there we can build on that and expand our network to go farther and further afield into more and more isolated areas as access becomes available to us.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, are there problems imminent of not only water-borne disease but the disease to be found in rotting bodies, not to put too indelicate a point on it?

GAIL NEUDORF: Definitely. I mean, epidemic is going to be one of the most serious considerations in many of these kinds of not only natural disasters but conflict as well. Is when people are displaced, you have a real risk of an epidemic, diarrhea or cholera epidemics particularly, which often will kill a lot more people than the initial event did. And it’s very, very serious and the communities taking that, it’s probably the most important issue to address in the immediate future.

GWEN IFILL: There are also areas in places like Indonesia, which were previously not that accessible because of internal conflict. I’m thinking of the Aceh Province in Indonesia. Have you had any success in being able to get into those areas?

GAIL NEUDORF: I understand the government has recently opened that up just a few hours ago. But up to that point, no, international organizations with very few exceptions were going in. So the information we were getting was through the government and not something that we could immediately assess.

So I would see that now that we are going to be allowed to go in we would be able to get a better picture of the devastation which we are certain is very significant as it was the epicenter of this quake.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Devine, should the residents in that area who are trying to figure a way to get back on their feet, should they be bracing for aftershocks at this point?

JIM DEVINE: Certainly in the area of northeast Sumatra, the aftershocks are large, they’re frequent, they’ve reached magnitude six, many of them. And so, yes, the aftershock problem is still serious concern in that part of Indonesia. Of course farther away it is not a problem.

GWEN IFILL: Does an aftershock mean what it means when we see these earthquakes happen on land the same way — are they aftershocks that will happen underground and create a new wave or are they just going to be rumbling.

JIM DEVINE: None of the aftershocks are likely to be large enough to create a tsunami anywhere near the size of the big one. In fact, the magnitude six or so is about at the margin where you would expect any tsunami to be generated. So that would not be the problem. But the shaking, the buildings already damaged in the Sumatra area would certainly be a great concern.

GWEN IFILL: And I also want to ask you one more time, Ms. Neudorf, also about what people should do. Obviously you have to get access you have to use your resources on the ground. We’ve heard Jan Egeland talk about how much money, billions and billions of dollars that it will cost for the international community to intervene here. What would you suggest to people who are sitting at home and would like to find a way to help?

GAIL NEUDORF: Definitely it is a huge area to cover and a lot of very different needs. And what we would like people to do is we are really requesting that they support us in terms of funds and monetary assistance because it is the most flexible.

Often we are able to get the resources in country — buy them right there and get them out to the people that need them very quickly — and by generating a lot more funds… and there is amazing generosity out there. But we do need more there and the more we are able to get, the faster we are going able to respond to this. I really request that people could support us in terms of money.

GWEN IFILL: Gail Neudorf and Jim Devine, thank you very much for helping us understand.

JIM DEVINE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.