Surviving a Tsunami

On the third anniversary of the Asian tsunami, we revisit the tragedy that killed 230,000 people. Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. We talked to him the day after the storm about how he survived.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The day after the tsunami hit, we spoke with Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs. He was vacationing in Sri Lanka, which was hit very hard by the tsunami. And he shared with us his amazing tale of survival.

Mr. MICHAEL DOBBS (Reporter, Washington Post): I was swimming around the little tiny island that my brother owns in a place called Welligama Bay, which is on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. And I was about a quarter away round the island when I heard my brother shout at me that there was something very strange happening with the sea. I looked around. I couldn't see what was the matter. It was a beautifully clear blue sky. But then, I saw the waters rising at an astonishing rate. It seemed to rise about 30 foot in space over a couple of minutes.

CHADWICK: Michael, the water is rising dramatically. Did it feel violent? Were you thrashed around by a huge wave? What was going on?

Mr. DOBBS: It didn't feel all that violent. Many people think of a tidal wave as a huge wall of water 30 feet high, but that's not how it is, particularly if you're in the water. Rather than a wave coming at you and hitting you, it's just the water is rising very, very quickly. And it rose above the level of a coastal road that runs along the shoreline. Fortunately, I was able to grab hold of a catamaran that fishermen use. The catamaran came to rest against some trees in the building. Otherwise, we would have been swept right inland.

CHADWICK: Did you see boats or animals or things getting swept out past you?

Mr. DOBBS: It was mainly that boats were either being rushed out to sea or swept two or 300 hundred yards inland where they smashed into people's houses along with the water, and in many cases brought the houses crumbling down around the people who lived inside them. That caused quite a lot of fatalities.

CHADWICK: That's Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, recorded three years ago, the day after the great tsunami.

An estimated 230,000 people were killed or went missing after the wave. At the time, there was no system in place to warn people of a tsunami. Since then, countries throughout the region have installed systems, warning systems, and they staged regular drills.

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Tsunami Survivors Remember 2004 Disaster

Many survivors of the 2004 Asian tsunami gathered at mass graves and mosques in Indonesia on Wednesday to remember the dead on the third anniversary of the disaster that swept a dozen nations and killed about 230,000 people.

The waves on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, triggered by the strongest earthquake in 40 years, took just under half of its victims in the Indonesian province of Aceh on Sumatra island, which was nearest the quake's epicenter.

Coastal communities in Sri Lanka and India lost 45,000 people between them. The waves also crashed into tourist resorts in southern Thailand, killing more than 5,000, half of them foreign vacationers.

The disaster overwhelmed authorities in Aceh, where bodies littered devastated neighborhoods for weeks. Most victims were never formally identified and tens of thousands were buried in mass graves.

Nur Aini lost her husband and one of her two children to the waves.

"We are praying for them today even though I don't know where they are buried," she told The Associated Press. "My remaining child still calls out for his father."

The disaster, one of the deadliest of the modern age, promoted a global outpouring of sympathy, with governments, individuals and corporations pledging more than $13 billion in aid.

"I hope we can turn a new page now and leave sadness, cries and tears behind us," the governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, told hundreds gathered at a prayer ceremony in the hard-hit town of Calang. "I hope one day we can pay our debt to the world by becoming a donor to other countries hit by disasters."

The observances came amid widespread flooding in parts of Indonesia. Heavy rains triggered landslides that killed at least 51 people on Java island, though far from the scene of the tsunami.

Thailand held ceremonies throughout the day along its white-sand southern beaches.

Survivors and families of victims were invited to Phuket's Patong beach, a popular strip of hotels and restaurants, to lay flowers in the sand. Chanting Buddhist monks were to light incense and lead an ecumenical prayer service.

A tsunami drill took place on the western tip of Java island, close to Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. It was attended by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other top government officials.

Those taking part ran or walked a mile inland after the siren sounded.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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