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From the Archives: The South Asian Tsunami of 2004 – Politics & Emergency Aid (Int'l Response)

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The Hungry Sea: An International Response for Global Public Safety
by Shawn Alladio

Originally published in our March, 2005 issue  

First the earth shook.

Then the waters moved throughout the Indian Ocean, catching eleven countries unaware at 7:58:53 AM on December 26th 2002 with a series of tsunami waves that sped towards vulnerable shores.  Holiday tourists, Boxer Day revelers, and devoted worshippers were enjoying that beautiful morning.  Many felt the submarine earthquake that rumbled nine miles below the ocean floor, but few suspected a tsunami would quickly be bearing down on their tranquil shores. 

Many deaths occurred as families were carried by the initial surge through horrendous debris piles, across low lying islands, crushed against stationary objects, or carried back out into the ocean only to drown with no hope of recovery.  Even so, there were a few incredible accounts of survivors found drifting afloat, babies on mattresses, a pregnant woman clinging to a tree for 5 days, a man 320 kilometers out to sea after 15 days.

As the world woke up to text messaging, cell phone, and email deliveries of survival accounts from western tourists, private organizations and charities leapt into action even before international emergency services rallied to render aid.  Disaster Management experts hadn’t given priority to assessing a far reaching tsunami and the resulting catastrophic damage. 

Since 1900, this has been the fourth largest earthquake in recent world history, causing more fatalities than any tsunami on record.  Within a few hours, neighboring countries began reporting horrific tsunami devastation.  At least 265,000 loved ones are the victims of the raging waters, although the actual numbers may never be known.  Entire villages were eliminated, with no survivors to tell their terrifying story. 

Daytime is now 2.68 microseconds shorter since the 9.0 earthquake.  NASA determined the North Pole moved approximately an inch.  The Hawaiian Tsunami Warning Center admitted that infrastructure wasn’t in place in the affected nations.  The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration began the international warning system in 1965; few of the affected nations were partners.  Scientists didn’t utilize the World Meteorological Organization's Global Telecommunication System to notify affected nations.  Warnings were issued uselessly to the pacific nations who weren’t affected.  Unesco, which manages the system, didn’t have partners in the affected nations since it is used primarily for cyclones; and those nations had rejected the program due to the associated costs.  Salvano Briceno, director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said this program can be used for floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, but evacuation plans still need to be implemented.  By the year 2006, Unesco intends to have all of the world’s oceans covered, but communication of these warnings still needs to get to isolated villages and tourists sites, which remains a monumental task. 

Left: This pair of dramatic satellite images shows Indonesia’s Bande Aceh before the tsunami (top) and, on December 28th, 2004, two days afterwards. 

Initial rescues were undertaken by the survivors themselves.  Coping with insurmountable personal losses, many countries lacked immediate rescue resources.  Sri Lanka reported among the missing 800 police officers, who would have been among their first responders.   Survival became dependent upon the provision of basic needs.  Emergency water, sanitation, food, shelter, clothing, medical supplies, identification and retrieval of bodies, diseases, contaminated water sources, geographical hazards, cultural advocacy, policies for reconstruction, and rehabilitation of survivors became a daunting task to incorporate at the spur of the moment through eleven countries and surviving tourists.

On December 29th, President Bush announced financial and military humanitarian aid, once an assessment was made.  Sovereign nations had to be contacted to confirm they would accept foreign aid, then to organize and deploy the recovery efforts.  Eventually 60 nations contributed aid along with private sector donations and volunteers.

The Indian Coast Guard and Air Force dispatched three AN-32 transport aircraft carrying relief and medical supplies and were the first emergency responses to react when the tsunami hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash directed five naval warships to ports in Sri Lanka in response to an SOS received from the Sri Lankan government.  The warships carried rescue helicopters, boats, naval divers, relief and medical supplies, assisting the Sri Lankan Navy in rescue operations when communications were initially sporadic.

President Bush’s first formal announcement on December 29th forged an international coalition to coordinate relief and reconstruction efforts with four nations providing the operational distribution: Australia, the United States, Japan and India.  "The core group is an informal and operational body formed quickly to ensure that the resources reach the people who need it.  It is not monetary but physical," stated David Mulford, the US Ambassador to India.  Several US&R teams were deployed from the United States; however personnel found themselves steeped in administration duties. 

The U.S. sent 16,000 troops with the USS Abraham Lincoln, deployed from a port visit at Hong Kong, providing sufficient airlift for supplies and equipment including Seahawk Helicopters to deploy aid that was sitting at relief centers, but not reaching remote zones.  25 Naval warships and 57 helicopters have been assigned to the relief effort, the U.S. embassy said.  Australia and New Zealand sent eight C-130 Hercules aircraft to transport medical personnel and equipment, a 90-bed field hospital, helicopters, water and refrigeration equipment, and engineers. 

Could Europe have mounted a large-scale relief program?  "We simply haven't got the kit," said defense analyst Daniel Keohane at the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER).  European defense ministers will not have military transport planes capable of carrying bulky humanitarian aid equipment until 2009.  France did sent two naval ships to the area on January 3rd, to help with relief efforts. 

UN chief disaster relief coordinator Jan Egeland, pledged 130 million dollars in aid from an international network on December 30th.  French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier urged for the creation of a humanitarian equivalent of the United Nations' "blue helmets," under which Europe would group pre-existing resources. 

Indonesia announced that by March 26th it wanted all foreign military aid removed, but repealed that request on January 15th for fear of terrorist attacks against foreign aid workers, a sensitive subject.  Traditional search and rescue teams were sidelined as the military handled the equipment and distribution logistics of such a massive undertaking.

Right: Aviation Anti-submarine Warfare Operator Second Class Timothy Sullivan from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 2 (HS-2) “Golden Falcons” views Banda Aceh after a supply drop. HS-2 was transporting supplies, bringing in disaster relief teams and supporting humanitarian airlifts to tsunami-stricken coastal regions. Photo: US NAVY/Patrick M. Bonafede

A long-planned UN conference on disasters in Kobe, Japan was held in January.  Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, attending the conference on Small Island Developing States, wants to extend the global warning system to cover all types of natural disaster.  Salvano Briceno, director of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said this would cover earthquakes, landslides, floods, droughts and hurricanes.  Implementing a technical warning system doesn’t solve the problem; the warnings have to reach the people, resources have to be allocated.

Impoverished countries rely upon charity and humanitarian aid to overcome global disasters.  Bureaucracy, politics, and cultural sensitivity will be crucial in developing a united front.  The UN is interested in strategically organizing a major global threat response to human survival creating domestic and foreign policies and networking resources.  There’s much to be learned that’s too late to serve the victims of December’s tsunami.  The global funding triggered by this disaster could have been utilized in advance to prepare for the inevitable.  Now we know, but have we learned?  And will politics diminish necessity?

Shawn Alladio is a boating safety instructor who has been teaching personal watercraft rescue boat courses around the globe since 1989.  Shawn recently partnered with Douglas Phillips and they created K38 maritime security training which caters to homeland security, law enforcement, fire rescue, and military applications.  For more information, see:

See Also: BBC 2014 news report:
Indian Ocean tsunami: Emotional reunion in Aceh 10 years on
By Andrew HardingBBC News, Lhoknga, Aceh, Indonesia

Click image at right to see an animated gif of the tsunami’s travel


See our other archived Asian Tsunami stories: 

Tsunami Rescue & Recovery: Inter-Agency Politics in a Disaster Zone
by Jeremy Zakis

When All Else Fails, Amateur Radio Lends Invaluable Messaging Support
By Bob Josuweit

Are We Safe? Tsunami Dangers on America’s Coasts
by Ron Eggers




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