✦ In the past 100 years there have been 58 documented tsunamis that have seen over 260,000 people lose their lives.
The sobering fact is that there will undoubtedly be more to come as the world’s population continues to grow and global warming continues to result in rising sea levels. It is why World Tsunami Awareness Day, a global event on November 5th each year, is such an important initiative that demands more focus and attention.
The Japanese word tsunami literally translates as ‘harbour wave’ with Wikipedia defining it thus: “a series of waves in a water body caused by the displacement of a large volume of water, generally in an ocean or a large lake. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other underwater explosions (including detonations, landslides, glacier calvings, meteorite impacts and other disturbances) above or below water all have the potential to generate a tsunami.”
While, naturally, tsunamis date back centuries, there have been several notable ones in recent history that have proven to be especially destructive, such as in Indonesia in 2018 (twice) and Chile in 2010. The most devastating tsunami-related event in history occurred on Boxing Day in 2004 when the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia. At 9.3 on the scale it is the third largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph, estimated to have released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. The subsequent devastation caused by tsunamis was unprecedented, killing over 230,000 people in fourteen countries from east Africa to Thailand. Memorial events are held every year in the locations impacted to mark the occasion and remember those who tragically lost their lives.
In 2011 a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan which, according to the SMS Tsunami Warning website “was the world’s fourth largest earthquake since 1900 and the largest in Japan since modern instrumental recordings began 130 years ago... [triggering] powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres in Miyako in Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture, and which, in the Sendai area, traveled up to 10 km inland.”
The world looked on in horror as images of the devastation were being beamed across the globe via TV, with official reports stating that over 20,000 people had been killed or were missing in the immediate aftermath. Compounding the chaos and danger was the fact that the tsunami impacted the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. All of the plant’s four nuclear reactors were damaged and shut down and over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the area although, fortunately, a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl was averted.
Brilliant Online’s very own Veronica Lind was personally caught up in the carnage, although thankfully she was some distance from the area most impacted. However, it was still an extremely scary episode to endure.
“I was on a business trip to Seoul and wanted to visit a friend and his family for the weekend in Tokyo,” she recalls. “The earthquake was felt at Narita airport just as my plane landed. I boarded the bus but it didn’t go. When I asked the bus driver why the delay, he replied, “earthquake”. I asked him what I was supposed to do and all he said was run!
“I actually ran into the middle of the car park and felt the ground move, as if I was on a ship. I then ran back to the airport where we were told to move out to an assembly area outside. Planes were continuing to land and hordes of passengers begin joining us. They told me Twitter went mad with the earthquake news. Lights were falling off the ceiling in the arrival hall. Later we saw staff and chefs (I was hoping they would cook for us!) coming to join us but they were told to go into the basement while passengers go to the ground floor. We were told not to lean against the wall or windows.
“We were given sleeping mats, water and biscuits. I remember a man with a blue suitcase had a phone which kept ringing to indicate another aftershock, keeping me up the whole night frozen in fear. The glass windows were trembling. My phone battery went dead and we had to queue to make a call home. I tried to go to various airport counters to seek help to fly back to either Australia or Singapore but nothing was available.
“On the second day, I called my friend who said it was safe to take the train to Tokyo to meet him but I was afraid, preferring to try and secure a way home. He told me he had walked 7 hours home from his office in Tokyo as there were no active transport. The TV relayed images of the explosion at the nuclear plant and the flooding, which was scary - I was worried Narita airport would be flooded too! I called Delta Airlines, which I had taken from Seoul to Tokyo, and luckily they managed to fit me in on the third morning. When restaurants started to open, McDonalds had a long queue. The fish porridge shop was almost empty and that was comfort food for me. I returned to Seoul still feeling the trembles.”
It was this first-hand experience that prompted Japan to devise World Tsunami Awareness Day, granted official recognition by the UN General Assembly in December 2015. The objective is for “countries, international bodies and civil society to raise tsunami awareness and share innovative approaches to risk reduction.” Technology tools are now utilised to provide advance warning to at-risk coastal communities in the hope of preventing any tsunami activity becoming a large scale disaster. Training exercises depicting mock scenarios are also deployed to best prepare local communities on how to respond in the event of a tsunami striking. In Phuket, Thailand, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, one will see signs everywhere denoting evacuation routes to higher ground, while offshore buoys transmit data back to naval command centres alerting of any potential threat.
Tsunamis are, ultimately, an act of nature that we can do very little to prevent and their physical destruction is, sadly, inevitable. However, like with most threats, we can move to mitigate the risk and ensure we are steadfast in our preparation to face any such disasters in future to minimise, if not totally eradicate, the tragic loss of human life.
There are a range of events taking place and resources available to mark World Tsunami Awareness Day on November 5. For more information please visit the United Nations website here.
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