Natural Disasters: Tsunamis

Tsunamis (or 'Earthquakes' continued)

In December 2004, I was in Houston visiting with family. We were all gathered around the television after dinner and watching the breaking news coming out of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and surrounding places in the Indian Ocean. I remember being horrified at the site of the tsunami footage, but really didn't grasp the extent of the damage and devastation until we returned home after the holidays. The additional footage and developments were worse than anyone could have expected. In the end, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami took over 225,000 lives.


"A tsunami is an unusually large sea wave produced by an underwater earthquake, a landslide, or volcanic activity...Tsunamis are set in motion by the sudden shifting of the seafloor (a vertical or sliding movement), which in turn raises or lowers the water on the ocean surface above. Gravity immediately acts to level the surface water, setting up a wave that travels outwardly as an expanding circle in all directions. [The waves] can be 20 to 70 feet (6 to 21 meters) high, their lengths can be measured in hundreds of miles, and their speeds can reach 500 miles per hour (800 km per hour). Because they are similar to swells, they are not usually noticeable on the open sea and ships cross them unaware. On arrival at the shore, however, their effects can be devastating."

Source: Langbein, Walter B. "Tsunami." Encyclopedia Americana. 2008.

Check out this USGS Publication entitled, "Surviving a Tsunami—Lessons from Chile, Hawaii, and Japan." Lots of interesting information, maps and images.

Tsunamis in History
  • Santorini, 1650-1600 B.C.
    Eruptions on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini caused a tsunami that, according to archaeologists, destroyed Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.
  • Awa, Japan, 1703
    An earthquake caused a tsunami that killed more than 100,000 people.
  • Lisbon, Portugal, November 1, 1755
    An earthquake caused a tsunami and subsequent fires that killed about 90,000 of Lisbon├»¿½s 275,000 people and destroyed much of the city.
  • Krakatoa, Indonesia, August 27, 1883
    The volcanic island of Krakatoa erupted, causing land and seabed around it to collapse and generating a tsunami felt from the West Coast of the U.S. to the English Channel.
  • Aleutian Islands, Alaska, April 1, 1946
    An earthquake caused a tsunami that killed 165 people in Hawaii and Alaska and spurred creation of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System.
  • South Central Chilean Coast, May 22, 1960
    An estimated 490 to 2,290 people were killed by the largest recorded earthquake ever, and a subsequent tsunami that spread across the Pacific Ocean as far as Japan.
  • Prince William Sound, Alaska, March 27, 1964
    The "Good Friday Earthquake" sent a tsunami that hit the Canadian province of British Columbia and the Pacific coast of the U.S., killing 122 people.
  • Indian Ocean, 2004
    An earthquake off the coast of Indonesia├»¿½s Sumatra island caused the deadliest tsunami in history. It hit at least 13 countries and had killed an estimated 140,000 people as of December 31, 2004.
Source: "Accidents and Disasters: Major Tsunamis." Facts On File World News Digest 31 Dec. 2004. Facts On File World News Digest. Facts On File News Services. 28 May2008 http://www.2facts.com/.

I looked Facts on File World News Digest and found that following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there was a mixed bag of events. Some were improvements, like the creation of a global warning system or that the Paris Club of 19 creditor nations to temporarily freeze debt payments due from some countries. It does make me wonder exactly how "temporarily" those freezes were and what kind of fees and penalties might have been accrued to those countries.

Then some pretty terrible things happened. The tsunami had left about 1,000 Sri Lankan children orphaned and those children were recruited to be child soldiers for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which the U.S., Britain and India list as a terrorist organization.

There were major agricultural losses reported. U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization senior officer Daniel Renault had said there was evidence that about 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of rice-paddy fields in Indonesia and 800 hectares of farmland in Thailand had been ruined by the tsunami. In Sri Lanka wetlands were contaminated by salt water, leaking fuel and other pollution from debris. Agricultural ecosystems in the region would never be the same again.

Finally, I was saddened, though not very surprised when I read that "because the areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami were relatively undeveloped economically, with no important industrial centers or ports destroyed, the financial cost of the disaster was expected to be relatively small given the enormity of the humanitarian catastrophe it represented.
Because the vast majority of victims of the tsunami were poor and uninsured, the cost to insurers was expected to be low compared with the $27 billion cost associated with summer hurricanes that hit the southeastern U.S. and destroyed many insured homes and businesses." The same article mentioned that the local economic burdens would be tremendous, but it just seems so ludicrous that monetarily speaking this natural disaster was considered fairly "cheap" even though the cost of human life was so high.

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