Lessons were learned in the global response to the Tsunami tragedy of 2004

Labour’s Seán Sherlock, Minister for Development, Trade Promotion, and North-South Co-operation, Corkman Mike Foott and Aubrey Belford look at the impact of the tsunami disaster of 2004 which devastated parts of Asia.

Ten years ago, the morning of December 26, 2004, saw a sequence of events that devastated communities and shocked the world. In the space of a few short hours, more than 230,000 people lost their lives as a result of a tsunami that affected 13 countries and left close to 3m people struggling to survive.

The might and power of nature once again took us all by surprise and left behind an unimaginable wake of destruction and ruin. The images that were beamed into living rooms that St Stephen’s Day still have the power to shock and sadden us.

Indonesia was the worst affected in terms of human lives lost and physical damage. The death toll for Indonesia alone was 167,708 and over 500,000 people were displaced. Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand also suffered major loss of life. Ireland did not escape: Four young holidaymakers died in Thailand — Lucy Coyle, Éilís Finnegan, Conor Keightley, and Michael Murphy.

A boat passes by a damaged hotel, at Ton Sai Bay on Phi Phi Island, in Thailand. Friday marks the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters in world history: a tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off the Indonesian coast, leaving more than 230,000 people dead in 14 countries and causing about $10 billion in damage. Countries from Indonesia to India to Africa's east coast were hit, leaving shocking scenes of death and destruction. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett, File)

The global response was unprecedented. Initially, vital life-saving search and rescue activities were carried out by surviving family members, neighbours, and holidaymakers. Within hours of the tragic event, national governments began to put emergency response plans into action.

The Irish government responded quickly, immediately pledging support and following through to ensure funds were delivered where they were needed most. An assessment team travelled to the region to see how Ireland could best respond.

In total, over $6.25bn in global humanitarian funding was provided for the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami. Ireland contributed in excess of €100m, made up of €20m in official government funding and €80m in donations from the public. The total per capita contribution from Ireland was at least €25 per person, placing Ireland among the top five contributing countries in the world. I was proud to see such an outpouring of generosity and solidarity.

We worked with trusted partners — the UN, the Red Cross and strong Irish NGOs and aid agencies — while local aid organisations in the region rose to the enormous challenge. The life-saving work carried out by Concern, Goal, Trócaire, Oxfam, Red Cross, and others was worthy of the support of so many generous Irish people.

The role of the UN in providing direct help, co-ordinating the overall response, and planning for future protection mechanisms was critical.

We learned a great deal in the aftermath of the tsunami about the need to strengthen the international humanitarian response. In 2005, the UN initiated extensive reform efforts to enhance humanitarian co-ordination, leadership and financing. These initiatives have resulted in new approaches to working more accountably, predictably, and effectively.

Ireland, I believe, has been a leader and champion of the humanitarian reforms in both policy and financial terms.

The difficulties of responding quickly enough to such a huge emergency highlighted the need for a flexible and swift global fund. As a direct result, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (Cerf) was established. This enables donors to pre-position money so that when a disaster strikes, the urgently needed funding can be accessed quickly.

Since its establishment, the Cerf has proven very effective in delivering aid quickly to where it is most needed. Ireland has been one of its most committed supporters, contributing over $150m since its establishment.

Irish Aid, the government’s overseas aid programme, also acted on the lessons of the tsunami. We have put in place innovative, flexible, and pre-positioned humanitarian funding mechanisms for our NGO, UN, and Red Cross partners.

One of the important lessons learned from 2004 was that deploying large numbers of volunteers can hamper relief efforts. Irish Aid established a rapid response corps to provide highly skilled volunteers for deployment at short notice to work with UN partners on the ground.

Our roster members have specialised skills in logistics, engineering, telecommunications, hu-manitarian co-ordination, and protection. Irish Aid has deployed 250 roster members to over 40 countries since September 2007. Some 32 members have been deployed so far in 2014 to countries such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Senegal.

As part of Ireland’s rapid response initiative, Irish Aid pre-positions emergency supplies in humanitarian response depots around the globe, keeping transport costs to a minimum and allowing us to rapidly dispatch supplies to crises. We stockpile supplies which are most in demand by people in crises, such as tents, blankets, jerry cans, water tanks, mosquito nets, pickaxes, and spades.

In 2014, we airlifted eight shipments totalling 269 tonnes of supplies, with a total estimated value of nearly €2m. Most recently, we airlifted over 42 tonnes of supplies to Sierra Leone as part of Ireland’s response to the ebola crisis in West Africa.

Collectively, we are doing better. We can look at the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines one year ago and see how improved co-ordination; a focus on preparedness; and work to build the capacity of local communities to respond can result in far fewer deaths. The communities knew what to do and how to evacuate safely.

While the destruction of infrastructure was extensive, and 7,000 lives were lost, many thousands more deaths were averted because we now prepare better for such disasters.

However, the extent and complexity of emergencies continue to pose significant challenges for the humanitarian response system. We need to continue to take stock of how we can respond to crises more effectively.

The humanitarian community in Ireland will come together next year to convene a humanitarian summit to reaffirm our national commitment to saving and sustaining the lives of those affected by natural or other disasters.

I am fully committed to this important process; we must collectively challenge ourselves as an international community.

We need to think innovatively and use all the resources at our disposal — including political commitment to humanitarian action to ensure we are fit for the critical task of providing live-saving support in humanitarian emergencies.

-Seán Sherlock is Minister for Development, Trade Promotion, and North-South Co-operation.

‘If it happened today we still wouldn’t be prepared’

by Aubrey Belford

An Acehnese man smokes a cigarette near a house on which a fishing boat landed after it was swept away by tsunami in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia. Friday marked the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters in world history: a tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off the Indonesian coast, leaving more than 230,000 people dead in 14 countries and causing about $10 billion in damage. Countries from Indonesia to India to Africa's east coast were hit, leaving shocking scenes of death and destruction. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

In April 2012, Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, the city worst hit by the tsunami that killed at least 226,000 people on St Stephen’s Day 10 years ago, received a terrifying reminder of how unprepared it was for the next disaster.

As an 8.6-magnitude quake struck at sea, thousands of residents shunned purpose-built shelters and fled by car and motorcycle, clogging streets with traffic. A network of powerful warning sirens stayed silent.

No wave came. But if it had, the damage would have been “worse than 2004, if it was the same magnitude of tsunami”, said Harkunti Rahayu, from Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology.

On the 10th anniversary of the disaster, experts and officials say weaknesses remain across the region in a system designed to warn people and get them to safety.

For millions in coastal areas, warnings don’t always get through, thanks to bureaucratic confusion and geography. In the most vulnerable areas, infrastructure is wanting, and many lack the basic knowledge to keep themselves safe from the deadly waves.

Since the disaster, a sophisticated early warning system has sprouted from next to nothing, costing over $400m across 28 countries.

With 101 sea-level gauges, 148 seismometers and nine buoys, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System can send alerts to countries’ tsunami warning centres within 10 minutes of a quake, Tony Elliott, the head of the UNESCO secretariat that oversees the system, told Reuters.

But there has also been mismanagement and waste.

In Indonesia, a German-funded detection initiative built an expensive network of buoys — and then scrapped them — after reports of cost overruns and signs they were ineffective.

All but one of nine Indonesian-operated buoys had been lost or damaged by fishermen, said Velly Asvaliantina, an official at Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology.

The remaining buoy is not operational, she said.

Elliott said technological advances mean the lack of buoys is not a significant impediment in tsunami detection. A far bigger concern is getting warnings to at-risk coastal communities, and making sure people get to safety in time.

In some of the countries worst affected in 2004 — Thailand, Indonesia and India — much progress has been made, officials said. But concerns remain about this final, crucial stage.

The 2012 failure in Aceh prompted a reassessment in Thailand, where 5,395 people died in 2004, said Somsak Khaosuwan, head of Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre.

“We put our systems to the test each day. Our warning system is one of the best in the world, but I must admit we lack maintenance,” he said.

Samit Thammasarot, a former head of the agency who was ousted from his position following a 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was more damning.

“If a tsunami happened today, would we be prepared? No, we would not,” Samit told Reuters.

In India, the new system struggles to communicate alerts by fax, text message and email to remote locations, said Ajay Kumar, an official at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services.

In Indonesia, where at least 168,000 people died in Aceh province in 2004, the warning and evacuation system is beset by bureaucratic infighting. Aceh provincial authorities have resisted calls to conduct monthly sound checks of the six sirens in operation, despite their failure in 2012.

The Indonesian Agency for Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysics (BMKG) has tried for the past seven years to hand control of the warning system to the local government, he said.

Local authorities dispute this account. The head of Aceh’s disaster agency, Said Rasul, said the BMKG should be doing the tests.

Building standards in Indonesia, including Aceh, are still dangerously below par, said Jonatan Lassa, a research fellow at Singapore’s School of International Studies.

Some communities have also been rebuilt in particularly vulnerable coastal areas. “Should there be a tsunami, I think the impact will be the same (as 2004),” Lassa said.

My return to paradise and hell, all rolled into one

Corkman Mike Foott returned to Phi Phi Island as the tenth anniversary of the devastating tsunami approached

An elephant which belongs to forest ministry removes debris in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Friday marks the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters in world history: a tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off the Indonesian coast, leaving more than 230,000 people dead in 14 countries and causing about $10 billion in damage. Countries from Indonesia to India to Africa's east coast were hit, leaving shocking scenes of death and destruction. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

“Some spirits are still here”, an old Buddhist told me on my return to Phi Phi Island. It had been several months since the tsunami had come and gone.

I came back to find just a skeleton and some washed up broken bones of what the island had once been.

“Some spirit go to heaven, some go to hell.” He spoke with such calming wisdom that, though I am not a religious man, for a moment I may have been convinced he held the answer.

He turned away and his voice took on an entirely different tone as he haggled with tourists over the price of a T-shirt. Feigning absolute shock and horror at the prices they offered. Losing the sale, he turned back to me and in the same sincerity as before, picked up where he had left off. “It depends on ... what did you do while you were alive?”

Ten years ago I set off with an old friend on a journey that was to take us around the world. My plan; get into a few adventures and come out the other end having figured it all out.

The map to this journey of enlightenment however, got buried in the sand beneath dancing feet and my path led me off on a somewhat clichéd journey instead. A journey fuelled by self-indulgence which saw many good times and many hangovers. In the sweltering morning heat of a beach hut in Thailand, with an old rickety fan spinning above my head, I’d wallow in sweaty self pity.

During these reflective mornings, the answer I found myself searching for was not what did I do while I was alive? But rather, what did I do while I was inebriated? But after a day swinging in a hammock, listening to the whispering waves wash the night away I would do it all again.

By Christmas my path had led me to the peaceful little paradise of Phi Phi Island. On the morning after Christmas day, the sound of screams brought us to the window. Outside people were running for their lives and it was not a whisper this time but a roar that the wave let out as it swallowed up everything in its path.

“I sleep.” An old Thai woman told me on my return. She sat behind the counter of her shop, which somehow stayed standing despite missing most of its walls.

“I wake up again underwater. I think, this dream now. I don’t know why.” Her wounds had healed, but the scars they left made it hard to look and harder to look away.

With an aggressive force, the hungry wave pushed against the door, which left out a deep groan before it snapped in half. We found ourselves being thrown around the room by its immense power. I thought the end of the world had come as the room filled up. I grabbed hold of the curtain rail and kicked in the window.

We climbed outside and clung onto the last few moments life had to offer. Just as death seemed imminent, the sea began to retreat and then settled in a sinister stillness at waist height. We thought for a moment that death had been escaped after all, but it had not. A Thai man came trudging through the dirty black debris filled water with terror in his eyes.

“My child, my child! You see my child?” he screamed. Looking around at the devastation, it dawned on me that death was among us. We helped him look for his child knowing we could not possibly find him. The world had been turned inside out.

I remember looking inside one bungalow where a boat had smashed in the front wall and was somehow suspended but looked as though the slightest tip would let it crash to the ground. Our futile search was abruptly brought to an end when another two local men came running around the corner screaming.

“It come back. Run!” I didn’t even hesitate to look behind. We ran, tripped and stumbled through the dark water, beyond the bungalows, and up into the jungle-clad hills. I can tell you now, in all honestly, I have no idea if the man searching for his child ran with us or if the angry wave swallowed him up too.

En route to the top of the hill we came across a young Thai couple who sat next to each other in the shadows of the trees. There was a dark vacancy in their eyes and I knew without question that they had lost their child also.

“My little girl and my wife went to the beach that morning”, a man with dreadlocks down to his waist told me. I had come across him sitting alone in his beach hut bar, staring out to sea one night long after closing. I stopped to drink a beer with him. “I never see them again,” he said.

At the top of the hill we set up camp. There were hundreds of us there and hundreds more on the other hills. There was an old food hut on our hill which had once been a rest stop for visitors. It had become a shelter for the injured. Inside they screamed and squirmed on table tops, soaked in blood. A pregnant woman and a young child were among the patients of the makeshift hospital.

Stranded on the hill, we became a community built on solidarity and equality. It didn’t matter who you were, where you were from, and whether or not you had money in your pocket. It was no good to you there. There was little water and even less food. Men returned from the devastation having dug out the supplies they could and it was all shared equally. You took a sip of water and tore off a piece of bread before passing it on, content with your lot, but hungry and thirsty just the same.

On a trip down the hill to try and contribute to the supplies, we came across a young girl in a wheelbarrow. Somebody had wheeled her half way up the hill where she lay in a heap, all tangled up. She had been chewed up and spat out by the wave. I don’t expect I’ll ever see anyone more dead than that poor girl was. Her family and friends were out in the world somewhere, not yet realising their worst nightmare had come true.

The sun began to set and together we collected firewood and settled in for the night. We shared stories around the fire of all we had seen that day and, with no radio contact, we wondered if the folks back home had any idea what had happened.

We had no idea that the whole world was watching and our families were waiting desperately by the phone for the call we couldn’t make. At least for them they would eventually hear our voices at the end of the line. Others, like the family of that young girl we came across on the path, would never hear her voice again.

A piercing howl found its way from another hill to our camp throughout the night. It was the sound of a man losing his grip on life.

Another sound that found its way through the trees was that of a Frenchman screaming out into the night: “Has anyone seen my wife?” Hours later, when he reached our camp, he called out once more, “Has anyone seen my wife?” He followed up with a description. A young girl sheepishly came forward claiming she may have seen her.

After she told him what clothes his wife was wearing he knew it was true. She assured him his wife was alive and well. She had run up the hill with her, but they had parted somewhere along the way. The Frenchman picked that girl up and spun her around, promising he would never forget her. We might have all clapped and cheered, but out of respect for the others we remained silent.

Rumours started to float around that ferries would be sent for us at first light and as dawn eventually came creeping in, the camp began to stir and spill down off the hill. Down through the trees we went, and out into the remains of what had once been paradise.

We clambered over the devastation towards the pier. Beneath us, the dead could be seen peeping up through the gaps to a world that had left them behind.

We waited in our thousands, baking beneath the morning sun as it weighed down upon our shoulders. We had never been that thirsty before, but we could not complain.

The dead waited with us. Their bodies were stacked beside us and in the heavy melancholy air there felt a presence of another kind.

Ferries came weaving through the debris of shattered lives to take us away a few hundred at a time. We stepped off the island and onto a ferry to leave the nightmare behind, but for many the nightmare was all they had left.

Looking back as the ferry took us out to sea, I saw people digging through the flattened village, buried beneath was their homes, their livelihood and their loved ones.

I rang in the New Year back in Ireland partying with friends and family and for a moment Phi Phi felt like a world away, but it wasn’t. In the bathroom, while washing my hands, I saw my reflection in the mirror and found it hard to look at myself.

The shame of having left them all behind and the guilt of having survived when so many others had died brought the tears I couldn’t bring myself to stop.

As I said, I’m not a religious man, but when I revisited the hill I felt something in the air. I entered the hut that had been our makeshift hospital. Cockroaches climbed over the pots that had been sitting in the kitchen for all those months.

There were bloodstains on the tables and the mosquito nets blew in the breeze with a ghostly silence. “Some spirits are still here.” I had come back looking for an answer, but it was not there. There was only a question. “What did you do while you were alive?”

About 1,000 of the 5,000 inhabitants on Phi Phi Island died on December 26, 2004. Men, women and children. Many of them had earned the right to live far more than I had. Honest people who were poor and had to work hard all day everyday while they were alive, just to try and survive.

Children who had got to experience so little of what life had to offer. Three waves and three minutes was all it took to take it all away. I owe something to those people, and to those who survived and had to pick up the pieces of their lives, our friends on the hill.

Years after my initial return, I returned once more to Phi Phi to spend Christmas there with some friends I had made on my travels. It was as though the tsunami had never been.

The island had picked itself up, dusted itself off and carried on living. Dancing barefoot on the beach into the early hours I kicked up the old map that I had buried there years before.

And to this day the journey continues.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

More in this Section

Efforts to solve Bus Éireann’s financial woes were too little, too late

Another body blow for beleaguered Garda boss

Issue of safe and timely transfer of patients across CUH is unresolved

More pressing issues than a well-ironed shirt and tie


Breaking Stories

No winner of tonight's Lotto jackpot

Latest poll shows Labour and Independents gain while Sinn Féin lose

Social Democrats reject Garda Commissioner's statement as 'completely inadequate'

Compromise will be key in North talks, says SDLP leader

Lifestyle

Layer up to create a cosy, comfortable home

Tips on how to keep a lawn in good shape

Conversations with Grandma: Four writers talk feminism and life with their grandmothers

Cooking with kids: Darina Allen’s recipes for Mother’s Day

More From The Irish Examiner