In the year since Arizona State University Professor Harindra Fernando led a team of scientists to his tsunami-ravaged homeland of Sri Lanka, the island nation has begun to rebuild, but the researchers' findings and recommendations about measures that could help avert another disaster are only partially being heeded.
Ironically, knowledge gained from the tragedy that struck Southeast Asia may prove to be most beneficial to safeguarding United States cities.
The study helped establish the relationship between the magnitude of undersea earthquakes and the size of a tsunami, and helped in predicting where a tsunami would hit after an earthquake. advertisement
Fernando, director of ASU's Environmental Fluid Dynamics Program, remembers only too well how quickly news of the disaster reached him last Christmas. Sri Lanka is 13 hours "ahead" of Arizona, and the waves began slamming ashore about 9 a.m., Dec. 26th, towering as much as 30 feet above hapless villages and carrying millions of tons of water.
"It was our Christmas night and my sister-in-law called and said a tsunami had hit; she didn't have much information and had heard about 100 people died," said Fernando, who lives in Chandler with his family. "By the morning the extent of the devastation was being reported. It was very terrible."
Terrible indeed. It began with an earthquake of a magnitude of about 9.3 in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of northern Sumatra; the quake generated an energy wave that traveled at about 500 mph across the sea.
When the wave reached a shoreline, the rising shelf of land had the effect of lifting the ocean and slamming it down on the beach, sometimes sending a deadly wall of water inland as much as half a mile. The waves killed about 31,000 in Sri Lanka and about 170,000 in Indonesia, Thailand, India and other nations in the area.
Fernando's family in Sri Lanka lives just out of reach of the wave, but they knew many who lost their lives.
As the extent of the damage wrought in Southeast Asia became evident, massive world aid began to mobilize. Teams of researchers also began to mobilize, for they saw an opportunity to examine the effects of a historically gigantic tsunami.
"On the morning of December 27th I got a call from (Cornell University Professor) Philip Liu asking whether I'd be willing to coordinate a visit to Sri Lanka to get measurements so there would be a future record for people doing studies on tsunamis," Fernando said. The National Science Foundation Earthquake Research Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey sponsored the team, which included eight U.S. tsunami specialists and one from New Zealand as well as several from Sri Lanka.
"We all had seen the television images, read the newspaper stories, but until we were in the villages . . . we didn't get the full impact," Fernando said. "Some villages were just knocked down flat, just reduced to broken pieces."
Geologist James Goff, senior tsunami researcher at the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, wrote in an e-mail that he was torn between compassion for the victims of the flood and raw curiosity.
"You don't go on trips such as these and ignore the human tragedy, but as an earth scientist you are there to gather vital clues about the nature of the tsunami," Goff said. "The human tragedy exists all around you-it never leaves, but you just immerse yourself in your work and filter other information as well as you can."
And what Goff and the others wanted to learn was, "how high the waves were, how far inland they traveled and details like whether there was reason for worry before the waves came; that is, was the water going out before the waves hit?"
A visit to the Safari Lodge in the Yala Game Preserve Jan. 11 struck Fernando particularly hard.
"I had taken my family to the lodge in July," he said. "It was a beautiful hotel where people go and enjoy the beach and wildlife sanctuary, seeing elephants, deer, wild boar . . . just a magnificent place."
Fernando and the other scientists were stunned when they found that the entire hotel complex was "smashed; turned to rubbish and rubble," he said.
While Goff too mourned the 175 hotel staff and guests who died, he and fellow sediment geologist Bob Morton saw fresh and fascinating evidence of how far inland a tsunami could carry soil. They found sediment more than half a mile inland. And they learned that the water had receded before the wave hit. The scientists published their findings in several journals, including the June issue of Science, and August issue of EOS, the journal of the American Geophysical Union. "One of the more important things we learned was that removal of natural barriers can have a major effect on inundation," Fernando said. "Sand dunes had been removed from in front of the Yala Safari Lodge because they blocked the view; they also could have blocked much of the force of the tsunami."
The scientists also found that coral-reef mining off the Sri Lankan coast had removed the sort of barrier that could mitigate the force of a wave.
Goff said that among the most important lessons was, "if we are to create tsunami-resilient communities the population must be made familiar with the hazard. Education is vital."
Professor Liu has spent years constructing a computer model that will predict tsunami behavior based upon the relative force and location of an undersea earthquake, and data gathered in Sri Lanka was invaluable, he said.
"The (U.S.) government is committed to set up a warning system for the Pacific Ocean. The type of model we have been developing is useful in any place, and could be used to predict tsunami activity off the U.S. coast."
As for Sri Lanka, government officials say a program of educating the public about tsunami dangers has begun. Rebuilding, however, has had a mixed success.
Fernando returned to Sri Lanka on three subsequent trips, and says that the coastal rail line that seemed irretrievably demolished has largely been repaired. Some public buildings are being rebuilt, but thousands of people still have no homes and live in refugee camps. The rebuilding of the destroyed towns and villages has been difficult.
"In the weeks following the tsunami, as we and others showed the government how far the water had traveled inland, orders were given that no building could be done closer than 500 meters to the shore," he said. "And critical infrastructure, hospitals, schools, had to be even further inland.
"That was not popular, and there was local pressure and political controversy." In the months that followed, the line was moved back to 100 meters and now is as close as 50 meters, he said. "It has to do with the way the government structure works; it is different than we understand here."