A Boxing Day like no other: The Indian Ocean tsunami, ten years on

ON BOXING Day 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean, triggering a deadly tsunami which battered coastlines across Asia. In the first in of five days of coverage of the disaster which shocked the world, The Yorkshire Post examines what happened.

Friday, 26th December 2014, 11:42 am
An elephant which belongs to forest ministry removes debris in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

It hit 14 countries, killing around 230,000 people and making 1.7 million homeless.

It was indiscriminate, Thai fishermen working out at sea were swept away, as were tourists relaxing in luxury resorts.

Stark images of villages razed to the ground filled television screens around the world.

An Acehnese man walks through debris near the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh, about 240 kilometers from the earthquake's epicenter. AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

In total, 149 British citizens or those with close links to the UK died, including many from Yorkshire.

Some families were told within days that their loved ones had been lost, but many had to wait months for news. For some, that phone call never came as some bodies were never recovered.

The earthquake that caused the tsunami was 23,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb and caused a shift in the ocean floor that displaced enough water to fill a tank 1.6 kilometres wide, 1.6 kilometres high and more than 11 kilometres long.

No early warning system was in place, so many had no idea what was happening, and barely registered what the shift on the horizon meant - or were prepared for the waves that followed the initial hit.

A boat passes by a damaged hotel, at Ton Sai Bay on Phi Phi Island, in Thailand AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett, File

The risk of a large earthquake in the Indian Ocean had been “significantly underestimated”, Tim Henstock, senior lecturer in ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton said.

Only a “small number” of people were involved in monitoring seismic activity in the region when the massive the massive earthquake struck, causing the Earth to physically wobble on its axis.

The lack of an early tsunami warning system was a “significant factor” in the devastation caused, Dr Henstock said.

Whereas the tsunami reached Banda Aceh, Indonesia, 20 minutes after the earthquake struck, just before 8am off the coast of Sumatra, it was hours before it reached other shorelines in the region.

Villagers walk with their belongings past two boats that were washed ashore by tidal waves at Nagappattinam, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File

“Looking at Thailand, Sri Lanka and the coast of India, an early warning system would have made quite a significant difference, where there was a couple of hours of travelling time,” he said.

“The lack of an early warning system meant people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere would not have been aware of the earthquake happening.”

The force of the earthquake created the biggest tsunami in more than 40 years, something Trevor Guymer, an advisor to the UK’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) office, said was “not possible to predict.”

“We might see, on average, one occur a century. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen again in a few years.

An Acehnese man walks through debris near the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the earthquake's epicenter, Indonesia.

“The real challenge is how to maintain readiness,” he added.

While the tsunami and the devastation it caused was a once in a lifetime event, the humanitarian response was the biggest the world had ever seen.

An estimated £8.6billion was raised by the international community. Up to 40 per cent was donated by individuals, trusts, foundations and business, making it the highest ever privately funded emergency, a new report by Oxfam said. In the UK alone, £392m was donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s tsunami appeal,

Oxfam worked in seven countries – Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Thailand and Somalia, the charity’s biggest emergency response ever. It provided emergency water, food and shelter, and then had enough to improve livelihoods over a five-year period.

Oxfam GB’s chief executive, Mark Goldring, said: “The British public should be left in no doubt that they were part of an extraordinary life-saving and life-changing effort. Their generosity meant that people who had lost so much in a matter of minutes were able to recover, piece back their lives and today be in a stronger position than hardly anyone dared imagine ten years ago.”

However, the scale of the disaster meant some people were hard to reach, especially in Sri Lanka, which was riddled with civil war and still suffering years after.

But like with the warning system that is now in place, lessons were learnt in the humanitarian sector, and charities are now better prepared to work together in response to disaster, Oxfam said.