EFFECTS OF THE LATEST EARTHQUAKE / TSUNAMI IN SRI LANKA and EERI

Prepared for EERI by Chandra Godavitame, a former World Bank official, who has worked on a number of disasters-related projects -- Nepal Earthquake, Uttarkashi Earthquake, Maharashtra Earthquake, Andhra Pradesh Cyclone, Sri Lanka Emergency Reconstruction and Bangladesh Floods.

The Sumatra EarthquakeThe earthquake (9.0 on the Richter scale) that occurred on December 26,2004,with the epicenter off the coast of Sumatra, triggered tsunamis whichhaveaffected Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Andaman and Nicobar Islands,India (TamilNadu), Sri Lanka, Maldives, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. It is reportedthat thetsunamis were preceded by receding seas, and huge swirls of the sea.Variousreports indicate that up to 20 foot high waves hit many places inIndonesia,Thailand, and Sri Lanka, first pushing everything inland in its path asfar as1000 meters until its energy was dissipated. The receding water suckedbackanything or anybody not strong enough to secure themselves. Tsunamiskeptcoming, with reduced intensity. It is reported that more than 70earthquakes/tremors of reducing intensity have been recorded up toDecember 31.

Over 130,000 people are now confirmed dead to date (December 31). Thedeathtoll is rising, as more bodies are discovered, and as more bodies arewashedashore. The highest death toll is in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India (TamilNadu),and Thailand, in that order. The tsunamis have caused considerabledamage tocommunications, infrastructure, commerce, tourism, and many privatebusinesses.The impact is worse on the poor, as they live in houses built withtemporarymaterial along the coast. In the poorer South Asian countries, insuranceagainstdisasters, especially among the poor, does not exist.

Impact on Sri Lanka

The Tsunamis. People noticed an unfamiliar and unusual phenomenon of thereceding sea, exposing corals, fish, etc. Two successive waves hit thecountryin about 3 hours on December 26. The second wave is reported by variouspeopleto be about 5 to 6 meters in height.. Satellite pictures indicate thatlargediameter swirling motions of the see occurred along the coast line.Many lowerstrength tsunamis continued with less severity, but causing flooding.

Sri Lankans are familiar with cyclones, but do not know tsunamis. Thetsunamisgenerated a degree of curiosity, amazement and complacency at firstsight of thereceding sea (shore line), and the sight of the giant waves. When peopleheardthe giant roar of waves, 10 to 20 feet high, and saw them approaching,is whenthey started to run. This was too late for some. Others were caughtcompletelyunaware of the event and were washed ashore. and then sucked back to thesea.Women and children not strong enough to hold on to anything were washedaway.any people have lost all their family members and all their belongings.Muchsmaller waves have instilled fear among the population.

Loss of Life. Over 24,000 are confirmed dead to date (December 31). Morepeopleare reported missing, and death toll is expected to rise. The chances offindingpeople alive is very remote. The death count increases as bodies getwashedashore. The tsunamis have devastated Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi (Tamilcontrolledarea), Trincomalee, Ampara, Hambantota, Tangalle, Matara, Galle, and allthebeach resorts along the coasts around the island. Only the northwestcoast wasspared. High sea levels resulted in flooding with successive tsunamiseven alongthe west coastal towns. The largest number of deaths have occurred inAmpara,Mullaitivu, Galle, in that order. The waves were so strong that itwashed away atrain traveling south along the western coast, reportedly killing nearly1000people. At least 500 to 600 tourists may have lost their lives.

There are reports that accurate figures of deaths and other damages arenotavailable from areas in the north and east, such as Mullaitivu andKillinochchi,which are under the control of the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers are reportedto havehad many of their military camps and naval facilities in those areas,and it ispossible that information on the losses is withheld for securityreasons. Otherreports indicate that rehabilitation works in the Tiger controlled areascouldbe fraught with risks because of landmines, and the possibility thatmarkerswould have been displaced due to the intensity of the wave action.

Damage. People residing within about 500 meters to 1000 meters of theshoreline,in timber and corrugated structures lost everything - their houses andall theirproperty. Buildings of more permanent materials also collapsed orsufferedstructural damage. It is estimated that over 1,000,000 people have beenrenderedhomeless. Preliminary estimates are that between 250,000 to 300,000houses havebeen destroyed. The majority of the people who lost their lives are thepoorliving along the coast line, and who depended on the sea and tourism fortheirlivelihood. Most of the privately operated tourist facilities along thecoastline all have been destroyed. Roads and rail tracks became impassablebecauseof all the debris; rail lines were washed away; water supplies andsanitationfacilities have been destroyed; and power and telecommunications weredisrupted.People have lost their means of income, and the economy in theseregions hasdisappeared. Medical facilities in the affected communities have alsobeendamaged and some washed away.

Search and Rescue. The Government deployed 20,000 troops for search andrescue,, and requested the public and boys and girl scouts also to helpin thesearch and rescue operations. Of the people affected, most died withinhours dueto drowning, buried under buildings, injuries from floating debris, andasphyxiation. Rescue comprised two types - those who were buried inpiles ofdebris, and those stranded in collapsed buildings. Many volunteers andlocalpeople joined in the rescue to remove debris looking for survivors. TheIndianGovernment sent six helicopters, supply warships and troops to assist inrescueoperations, along with other supplies. Other help started coming inaroundDecember 29/30. Local communities continued the search and rescuecombingthrough debris in search of anyone alive. During the second and thirddays,bodies were floating towards land.

Rescue operations were impared because roads railways and othercommunicationswere destroyed, and roads were impassable in the first two to three daysdue todebris of all types, and rail links were cut. The government has limitedresources of boats and helicopters. The government reportedly was abletorecover only about 170 bodies out of 1000 bodies trapped in the wreckageforthree days because heavy cutting equipment was not available, or couldnot bemobilized. During the first two days, clearing was done with someequipment andmostly manually. Rumors are spread by unscrupulous persons with theintent oflooting.

Disposal of a large number of bodies was slow because of the sheernumbers,recovery from under debris, and because the dead included a large numberofforeign tourists. who had to be fingerprinted. Health authorities' mainconcernwas to bury or cremate the rotting bodies to prevent an outbreak ofdiseases. Itis reported that this activity is getting under control by about thefourth day,but there was an overpowering stench of rotting bodies and animalcarcasses(which had received a lower priority). Additional stench was comingfrombodies that had not yet been recovered from under debris.

Relief Operations. Providing relief to over one million people scatteredallaround the island was a challenging task, for which the Government wasnotequipped. The President who was abroad returned promptly, and set up adisastermanagement center to coordinate relief activities. The Governmentappealed forinternational assistance with rescue and relief activities. More than300emergency centers were set up by the Government in schools, churches andtemples. Medical teams were mobilized, and feeding and other reliefactivitiesat these centers commenced, The major problem was the lack of potabledrinkingwater because all water sources (wells) were contaminated with saltwater anddebris. All sanitation facilities were also destroyed. Having clearedthe roadswithin the first three days relief supplies began pouring in. There hasbeen agreat upsurge of community support organized by the Government, five TVnetworks, NGOs and various organizations, which set out to collectclothing,food and water. It is clear that supplies available in the country arenotenough to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. India was able torespondquickly to set up field hospitals and help with relief operations.Understandably organizing international aid for about seven countries atonetime has been a daunting task for the international community also.However,help started arriving by t he fourth day for many countries. Thistragedy hasunited the country to help their fellow countrymen, but there isreluctance byTigers in the north and east to allow volunteers and other help..

By about the fifth day, things appeared to have been under control,Howeverrisks remain - outbreak of diseases from rotting bodies, contaminatedwater,lack of adequate sanitation, and lack of medicines and medical supplies.Localefforts were excellent but inadequate to meet the needs Internationalhelpstarted arriving by the fifth day, and the situation is expected tostabilizesoon. However, there is a great deal of trauma among the affectedpeople, butthere are not adequate persons or facilities to deal with this aspect.Thelong-term task of restoring housing, livelihood and communities will bealong-term program.

Lessons from Sri Lanka
  1. A simple but important lesson from the experience in Sri Lanka isthe needto educate the population in Sri Lanka, at the community level, aboutsimpleprecautions that would save lives during tsunamis and earthquakes.
  2. A seismic event in the wider region should be taken as a warning ofthelikelihood of tsunamis. Unaware or the killer nature of the tsunamis,manypeople were reported to have watched this curious phenomenon, marveledat theexposed corals, or took the opportunity to collect stranded fish
  3. A receding sea should be taken as a first early warning. Runninginland atthe sight of a receding sea, would have saved many lives.
  4. Unusual sea activity, specially swirling motion and quick rise inwaterlevel are other warnings for quick evacuation.
  5. The roar of the approaching waves is another warning, even though itgives ashorter warning.(vi) Arrangements with the Tsunami Warning Center in Hawai, and otherearlywarning stations in Australia, to receive early warnings would giveabout one totwo hours of warning - adequate for an orderly evacuation