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A Close Brush with Tsunami

Tsunami is a Japanese word meaning Harbour Wave-

It has been in the news since the 26th of December,2004, after about 7:30 am when it first caused extensive damage in the Car Nicobar Islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago. It was formed by a massive undersea quake off the coast of Sumatra, in Indonesia, which is only about 150 nautical miles to the South East of the tail of the Car Nicobar Islands. Incidentally, I felt the tremor of this quake as I was getting ready to go to Church, just before 6:30 am. I was at that time in our apartment at a high-rise in Ernakulam,Kochi. (Tremors were not felt at Trivandrum,where our home is, because the city foundation is made of dense rock, as opposed to soft soil in the case of Ernakulam) It so happened that I did not watch TV or listen to the radio on Sunday, because it was a very busy day for the family. We had just returned to Cochin after a hectic three-day holiday in Ooty and were looking forward to a day on the Cherai beach, about 16 km from Cochin. Due to various small diversions, we could not leave for the beach till after 1 pm.

On reaching the beach after a half-hour drive, the attendant at the parking lot told us that there was an alert put out by the coast guard and the police about the possibility of some turbulence in the sea, and that it was advised that no one was to enter the water. We parked our cars, an Esteem and a brand new Alto, and after buying straw beach hats to shield us from the hot sun, climbed the sandy knoll to reach the beach. The water in the beach seemed to be behaving a bit erratically even then, advancing and receding without any sort of regularity. Every five minutes an announcement would be made by a policeman in the patrol jeep, driving along the road parallel to the sea, warning everyone to stay out of the water. No one seemed to be paying him any attention. There were about 200 persons on the beach with about 15 to 20 people, mostly youngsters, in the water. More tourists were coming in every now and then.

The beach had been gaily decorated with colourful banners and streamers supported on thick bamboo posts as the State Tourism Festival was on. The Car Park, between the sea shore and the road, held about 40 vehicles of various makes.

We ordered food at a hotel on the side of the road away from the beach and were told that we would be served on the ground floor portico at 2 pm.

Meanwhile, we heard the news of the Nagapattanam and Chennai disasters from conversations with trades people and tourist on the beach. The case of the Tsunami seemed to be an undersea quake in far off Sumatra in Indonesia. By logical deduction I grandly proclaimed to those around that the Kerala coat would be spared as we were on the west side of the subcontinent protected by the whole width of the end of the peninsula as well as by Sri Lanka. Only later did I learn of a term called “refraction” (obviously not of the Ophthalmologic kind), which could cause tidal onslaughts on shores not directly in line with the point of origin of the Tsunami. We made our way to the restaurant after 2 pm and were not very amused to find a trio of foreigners still occupying the table reserved for us. The hotel staff were very apologetic and said they could provide us a table inside. We were wondering whether to take back our advance and go to another establishment, when the manager offered us a table on the coconut thatch covered terrace of the concrete building which was usually allowed to be used by guests staying there. We accepted the offer immediately as this provided us with an exceptional view of the sea and the beach.

While having lunch we heard the police announcements being made more frequently and this time there were appeals to vacate the beach as well. A person was also overheard talking to an acquaintance on a mobile phone that the water would come inland at 3 pm. A look at my watch showed the time to be 2:50 pm.

We thought it would be wise to get away from the sea, as word was already coming in of the widespread damage in Kollam and Alappuzha. As we paid the bill we looked toward the sea and saw the water receding from the shore for about 30 meters or so, which meant that an area of the sea bed was exposed. Suddenly a large wave, which appeared to be rapidly increasing in height as it at approached the land, could be seen moving towards us. It looked like a grayish green wall of about a meter in height when first seen on the horizon. It looked menacing and ominous as it sped towards us.

I do not know how to swim. This compounded my panic. In that moment of helplessness I realized how lopsided my priorities in life had been. I screamed to my wife and daughter and my other relatives (my uncle, cousins and their families) to come back to the relative safety of the terrace and they all rushed back.

People on the beach had started fleeing helter-skelter in panic. Everyone had seen the advancing water by now. It was about 6 meters high when it hit the beach.

The water had crossed the sandy beach, covered the row parked vehicles completely, rushed over the road and hit the row of buildings. It nearly submerged the ground floor of the hotel. We could see a lot of furniture floating about, as were the people who could not find safety by hanging on to anything stable. The posts bearing the decorations were uprooted. So also were the roadside stalls selling balloons, sunglasses and hats and these could be seen moving about on the crest of the water. The screams of the persons being thrown about by the water did not make for pleasant hearing. The water withdrew as rapidly as it had advanced. What stunned me was the fact that where a line of about 40 motor cars of various makes and models had been parked, not a single vehicle remained. All that could be seen were two cars – a Maruti 800 with its rear wheels on the farther side of a was about 5 feet in height and its front bumper resting on the ground, and a Ford Ikon which had been pushed against another wall further down the road.

The scene was chaotic. I could see quite a few injured persons lying on the ground and bleeding from lacerations on various parts of the bodies. When I looked around, an eatery next to the hotel, housed in a temporary shed had totally disappeared. Boundary walls of many buildings were no more. There was a sheet of water on the ground about 6 inches thick. As people around us were talking about the possibility of a second attack by the sea, we, as well as everyone around us decided to leave the area as quickly as was feasible. My cousin and I went to look for the cars. We located both of them, among other cars, adjacent to each other, about 40 meters from where they had been parked. They were lying in marshy ground and were crashed against a Maruti 800, which itself had sustained some damage by hitting a coconut palm. Both cars were totally covered with wet sand and mud and had suffered dents all round. A couple of lights were broken, and the front number plate on the Esteem was not to be seen – insignificant damages by any standards. The car I had been driving was a bit wet inside as I had lowered the glass a bit as the car had been parked in the sun. Both cars luckily started at the first attempt and we found a lot of volunteers willing to push them onto the road (these were mostly owners of vehicles stuck behind ours), and we found that they were rolling normally. We joined the exodus from the area. People were running in panic towards the main road and we found driving on the same narrow road was quite difficult, what with pedestrians and people in autorikshaws bearing the injured beating on the glass with their hands asking us to get off the road to enable them to advance. We reached the main road after a nerve wracking 15 minutes. From then on we had a nearly uninterrupted journey to the city – barring two stoppages to allow people fleeing from the coastal areas to board buses commandeered by the police and the local populace, to enable them to get to camps arranged in nearby schools.

It was only after reaching home and watching on television the magnitude of havoc unleashed by the Tsunami elsewhere in Asia that the true extent of the providential escape we had, was brought home to us.

By Dr. Abraham Kurian

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