TUCSON, Arizona — Last year, I watched children running in and out of the waves on Sri Lanka’s southern shore. Life felt almost normal, almost as if the tsunami that claimed some 230,000 lives from Thailand to Madagascar 10 years ago had never happened.
On the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, I had watched from my living room in Tucson, Ariz., as film footage showed places my family and I knew and loved disappearing into the Indian Ocean.
The island had been our home in 2001-2002 when I taught at Peradeniya University in the central hills. I had been back several times, but the trip six months after the tsunami would be a very different one. I returned to an island where 35,000 had died within the space of half an hour. The coastal area lay in ruins, lives were shattered and bodies lost to the sea.
I frequently pause and revisit that day when, as the Sri Lankans say, “the sea came to the land.”
Is Sri Lanka better prepared to deal with another tsunami? Is the government doing all it can to help a wounded nation heal?
Sri Lanka today is much better prepared for a tsunami than it was in 2004, when there was no warning system in place in the Indian Ocean.
On that morning Stuart Weinstein, a seismologist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, saw the tragedy unfolding on his computer screen but had no way of contacting the countries in the Indian Ocean that lay in the tsunami’s path.
“Had this happened in the Pacific Ocean we would have had the warning out in 15 minutes and hundreds of thousands of people would not have died. There was no warning system, and we couldn’t just invent one,” Weinstein told me in an interview.
An Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning Center has been in place since 2006 with round-the-clock monitoring. Tsunami watchtowers with accompanying sirens are located at strategic intervals along the shore of the island to alert the public.
In 2004, most Sri Lankans had never even heard the word “tsunami.” This is not as surprising as it seems. Historically, fewer earthquakes and tsunamis have been recorded in the Indian Ocean in comparison to the Pacific Rim.
Now, through repeated evacuation drills, people have learned to move to higher ground within 2 to 2.5 hours of the initial warning. This is the all-important period for the energy generated by an earthquake in the Indian Plate to travel across the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean towards Sri Lanka. In 2004, there was plenty of time to seek safety. If only people had known.
Many lost their lives because when they saw the water receding in advance of the wave, they ran towards the sea and not away from it. Without realizing it they were running towards their own deaths.
Within a year of the disaster, most hotels in the southwest where the tourist beaches are located were back up and functioning. The island was badly in need of the money tourists would bring.
But the situation in the north shows a different story. This was the epicenter of the 25-year civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central government that ended only in 2009. Little aid had gotten through to the victims of the tsunami there.
Last year, I traveled north to the Jaffna Peninsula where resettling and rebuilding have proceeded at a slower pace. I visited people still living in tent cities, displaced by both the war and the tsunami.
It was impossible to distinguish the detritus of one from the other. I asked a fisherman who had lost his home if he was planning on rebuilding. He threw his hands in the air and said, “What for? It will only be destroyed again.”
Waves don’t play politics; only people do. Recovery from disasters of this proportion is a long and fragile process. No government can make loss easier to sustain.
What the Sri Lankan government can do is ensure that the entire island, irrespective of political allegiance, receives what it needs to put its life back to together materially and that it is disaster ready.
The wave was very democratic. It did not discriminate; neither should the government.
Adele Barker, is a professor at the University of Arizona and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She also is the author of Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka (Beacon Press, 2010).