Waves of Destruction

What lessons have we learned from response and recovery efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami? 

by / May 8, 2007
Indian Ocean Tsunami Photo by Terje Sorgjerd

The figures still strike fear in our hearts: an estimated 230,210 dead; some 2 million displaced; 370,000 homes obliterated; and about 5,000 miles of coastline destroyed.

But they also give hope of resilience: $13 billion in pledges and roughly $11 billion in commitments for projects; 150,000 homes, and 1,600 schools and health centers have been rebuilt or repaired; and economies and tourist hubs are quickly rebounding, according to the United Nations (U.N.) Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. 

Its waters besieged the beaches of 11 Southeast Asian countries, but the hard-earned lessons and time-worn perspective of emergency management successes and failures following the days, weeks, months -- and now years -- after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are still very much alive and relevant.

This tsunami was unique in that it affected so many countries and cultures at once.

The casualties comprised local residents, fishing community villagers, foreign visitors and resort vacationers. Some coastal Indonesian villages lost 70 percent of their inhabitants in just 24 hours, according to the BBC.

In Thailand, foreign help was swift, as forensic specialists traveled to the country within days of the disaster to assist vacationing nationals. But a much different picture was painted in countries like Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, where international help was scarce.  

Since the destruction, much has been accomplished in the way of preparedness: Affected countries started implementing a regional early-warning system, passed natural disaster prevention legislation, began training first responders and sought to educate the public, according to former President Bill Clinton's two-year anniversary analysis of the situation for the U.N. special envoy.

But some regions have proven more resilient than others. Continual analysis of how different communities deal with elusive, impending and highly destructive natural disasters here and abroad will help sharpen preparation guidelines for future disaster management efforts. Unfortunately the characteristic outpouring of money, interest and research following a big incident often fades as years pass.

"The enthusiasm sort of dissipates over time, and when nobody is actually investing any money, the whole place is not prepared, and then the next disaster hits," said Di Jin, associate scientist at the Marine Policy Center of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). "The idea is to develop a more robust, or sustainable, hazard management system."


Cataclysmic Quake
Tectonic plates under the ocean floor thrust against one another off the coast of Sumatra, an Indonesian island, on Dec. 26, 2004, catapulting 80-foot waves on Southeast Asian coastal communities, many of which were vulnerable even before the disaster, creating a true international catastrophe.

The tsunami hit Aceh, Indonesia, within 15 minutes of the shaking, and poured onto the southwest coast of Thailand two hours later. The disaster's scale and size broke records in emergency management and response as locals and foreigners puzzled the pieces together in the aftermath.

The 9.1- to 9.3-magnitude Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, the second most powerful earthquake on record, was so intense that NASA scientists said the tremor slightly shifted the Earth's rotation, altered the planet's shape and moved the North Pole several centimeters.

Following an undersea earthquake, automated buoys and tidal gauges record the changing water levels, from which scientists must quickly decide whether to issue a tsunami warning. Within 15 minutes of the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii knew of a possible tsunami, but could not spread the word without an early-warning network.

The only natural tsunami warning sign -- receding waters -- made tourists and locals more curious than afraid. Tsunami radio alerts weren't issued until after the waves had struck, according to, a strategic policy think tank focused on military, intelligence and national security matters.

But the Indian Ocean hadn't had any recent history of a disastrous tsunami.

The only known tsunami breeding ground is in the "Pacific Ring of Fire," which includes northeastern Indonesia, Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States, according to the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO) in Bangkok, Thailand.

"Had the Indian Ocean had the same kind of system installed as the Pacific Ocean, part of the disaster could've been avoided," said Jin, referring especially to Thailand, which wasn't hit for more than two hours by the waves.

That's why the same system of deep-sea tsunami detection used in Hawaii is now being deployed in the Indian Ocean. In December 2006, Thailand celebrated its first tsunami-detection system with a U.S.-funded Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoy, which is anchored to the ocean floor and emits real-time data accessible by any country, according to the WHOI. DART buoys were first used in the United States in 2000, and 20 of them are now interspersed across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The system is a notable example of scientific methodology meshing with disaster planning. Ocean researchers and hazard management officials should cooperate more often to adopt such hazard mitigation policies, and prepare communities to be more resilient in the face of disasters, said Jin, who co-convened an October 2006 WHOI colloquium, Lessons from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Stephen Atwood, regional adviser for health and nutrition at the UNICEF EAPRO, lectured at the colloquium, and suggested communities should learn to train and prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable; identify poor and vulnerable populations before a disaster and plan for their needs; assess the need for food, water and help before supplies are sent to affected areas; and encourage communities to take their future into their own hands post-disaster.

A Rare Event
The tsunami struck at the height of Thailand's tourist season, where an estimated 35,000 vacationers arrive daily, according to the UNICEF EAPRO. Joe Scanlon, journalism professor emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa and former director of Carleton's Emergency Communications Research Unit, said many countries contributed to the Indian Ocean tsunami relief efforts because of the cooperative nature of the host countries, and because nations like Australia, Europe, Sweden and Germany lost many of their own in the disaster.

Of the 8,212 people killed in Thailand, 2,448 were from 38 other countries, according to the U.N. special envoy.

Thailand was receptive to outside governments offering aid and was interested in finding their nationals. "I think it's a rare event that so many countries would be allowed to operate as freely as they were," Scanlon said. "I doubt you would see a repeat of that."

Another strength of the Thailand reconstruction efforts was that stakeholders were quick to build identification processes and call center facilities, said Tom Brondolo, the former deputy in the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), and founder of emergency management-consulting firm Brondolo Associates.

The Royal Thai Police and foreign forensic experts formed an international disaster victim identification committee after the first week, with the Australian government giving financial backing for the committee's information center. And in early January 2005, the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Center was established to operate a central mortuary in Phuket and work with Interpol, the world's largest international police organization, according to a 2006 Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine research article.

"The operation in Thailand was really unprecedented," said Oliver Morgan, honorary research fellow at the Health Policy Unit of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "A large number of forensic specialists were involved in the very resource-intensive and detailed identification activity that took place."

Most forensic identifications were done using fingerprints. The Norwegian government helped establish the central mortuary where investigators used the Danish Automated Fingerprint

Identification System. At the morgue, 3,777 bodies were examined and re-examined, according to the PLoS Medicine article.

Before the Thai government had access to refrigerated units for bodies, Morgan said, responders buried bodies methodically, digging graves several feet under the earth where soil is cold. This was much more efficient than mass, chaotic burial systems. 

One reason DNA wasn't widely used to identify bodies is because DNA samples degrade over time if a body isn't stored properly (cooled in refrigerators), and obtaining high-tech labs to process the matter -- not to mention getting the predeath material in the first place -- is logistically difficult, Morgan said.

Scanlon said most countries don't retain enough forensic experts on hand to handle a catastrophe as large as the tsunami, hence the need for international aid.

But such help is not in endless supply, Morgan said. Even if countries wanted to target more efforts outside of Thailand, they wouldn't have had enough resources to equally assist all affected regions.    

Morgan said a recent government meeting in Bangkok revealed that the country is taking a hard look at how to handle large fatality disasters and is developing better capacity and training for not only first responders, but also national response teams. "So it kind of raised the profile of this as an issue to be put on the agenda," he said, "but it's still early days, I would say."


Working Without Guidelines
Because the tsunami devastation was so widespread, many variables played into the handling of bodies. Balancing taboos, cultures, customs, religion, public health, storage and identification clashed with a lack of large-scale or local mass fatality plans, making it hard for all the dead to be properly handled and identified.

Without contingency plans, some countries struggled, while others garnered resources from neighboring and faraway nations. But the key factor to international participation was the involvement of Western tourists.

"The interesting thing is the contrast with a country which didn't involve a large number of Western tourists, such as India, which had many more killed than in Thailand -- and they didn't receive a similar level of international response," Morgan said.

In Indonesia, 130,736 died; in Sri Lanka, 35,322 died; in India, 12,405 died; and in Thailand, 8,212 died, according to the U.N. special envoy. These four countries bore the brunt of the calamity.

Morgan began studying the management of massive fatality incidents during his work as a sanitation engineer for international aid agencies, where he made decisions about what to do with large numbers of bodies following incidents.

"My personal experience was such that there was no guidance or information available for people on the ground, including first responders, about what they should do," Morgan said.

In the absence of concrete recommendations, Morgan teamed with experts in forensic medicine and representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization, to publish the 2006 PLoS Medicine article, Mass Fatality Management Following the South Asian Tsunami Disaster: Case Studies in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, on the lessons learned from the Indian Ocean tsunami. The study took a broad snapshot of the three countries' efforts in the disaster's aftermath to develop best practices on how to handle the dead.

From the extensive study, Morgan said he learned that when resources are available, large-scale identification is possible, and that sufficient planning and preparation is quite valuable. He said support and guidance are essential for first responders to do the best possible job. "Fatality planning should be a part of the emergency planning in general," Morgan said, "and integrated within the emergency response system."


The Aftermath
In each country, massive numbers of people

and parties were involved with the initial, piecemeal process of recovering bodies. Despite the large number of fatalities, first responders had a relatively easy time rounding up remains because most of the bodies swept up in the waves were laid out to dry once the water receded.

Despite the intact nature of the bodies, Brondolo said, the remains were sun-soaked and decayed by salt water, which peeled the top layers of skin and made visual identification difficult in some cases.

The tsunami devastated many poor communities, like the Aceh Province in Indonesia, where the disaster aggravated already inadequate living conditions. The once-wealthy province became poor in the 1990s when a separatist movement culminated in human rights violations and civilian deaths. Since then the region has seen increased health deficiencies in women and children, according to the UNICEF EAPRO. The strife prevented even international human rights organizations from stepping in before the tsunami, and it took two days for foreign aid to reach the region once the waves hit.

In this case, the disaster succeeded in exposing ongoing poverty problems, which often lurk under the radar, much like Hurricane Katrina highlighted the inequities of black Americans in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Thailand also was forced to acknowledge its long ignored, but sizable, migrant worker population, which was largely left unidentified after the disaster because there was no baseline data to go from, according to the UNICEF EAPRO. "It is actually the poor who are hit the hardest," Jin said. "So if you have a system designed for the vast majority, you are not really helping the most vulnerable, and the system will crack in the end."

And without proper refrigerated storage facilities, countries like India unknowingly hampered recovery efforts by digging shallow, temporary graves to set aside the dead for later identification efforts.

"The problem is that if you bury people in mass graves, in a kind of disorganized way, the bodies are literally just thrown into a big hole in the ground and covered up," Morgan said. "When you try to come back and disinter those remains and identify them, it's almost impossible because everyone's mixed together." 

Body recovery in Thailand was done by tourists, volunteers, nongovernmental organizations, the military and the police. Indonesian body recovery was decentralized, spread over several months, and done by the military and 42 other organizations. In Sri Lanka, affected villages conducted most of the recovery operations, according to the PLoS Medicine article.

"The resources were clearly lacking. In most countries, they don't have enough forensic specialists. But also the local police forces and rescue teams are not trained or prepared to deal with mass fatality incidents when they do occur," Morgan said. "So it was very difficult for those countries to respond."

Another vexing factor, he said, was the loss of those key individuals, such as responders and people of authority.

DNA capabilities and predeath records vary widely by country, Scanlon said, making forensic identification difficult.

In general, the type of identification can be divided into high-tech and low-tech methods, Morgan said. Low-tech identification relies on visual means of distinguishing bodies, and is known to be less reliable. High-tech methods include forensic elements, such as fingerprints, dental records or DNA. Most Western countries rely on dental records to identify the dead, while most developing countries have little forensic data on record, and must attempt to photograph the dead.

In Sri Lanka, the government mandated that local authorities collect fingerprints and pictures, but communication delays hampered action, and when word finally spread, bodies had already begun decaying. Where photographs were taken, insufficient funding left some film tragically undeveloped. But amid these frenzied identification efforts, one Sri Lankan hospital in Matara snapped digital photographs and experienced a high 87 percent success rate

in identifying bodies, according to the PLoS Medicine article.

Hundreds of thousands of the dead in Indonesia were not identified because entire villages were destroyed and entire families were consumed by the tsunami's roaring waves, leaving little evidence behind to recover or name bodies.

In countries that endured extreme, large-scale destruction, like Sri Lanka, recovery was more difficult than in countries like Thailand, which sustained localized destruction.


Local Strength
At the local level, the American Red Cross has been working to include wide-scale cataclysm planning in its disaster management curriculum, Morgan said. However, disaster planning at the national level and work to promote inter-regional cooperation are still lacking. 

To assist local communities that don't have ample international help or a firm national response plan to cope with sweeping disasters, the Pan American Health Organization, the WHO and the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent convened in May 2005 and issued a report in April 2006 titled, Management of Dead Bodies After Disasters: A Field Manual For First Responders.

The manual serves as a practical guideline for nonspecialists involved in disaster management, and empowers communities to take control of their own, often fragile, destinies. Morgan, who helped author the report, said the manual was used even before it went to press.

"While it was still in draft, it was used after the earthquake in Pakistan and India in 2005, and was used by the Philippines during their first mudslide in 2005," he said.

Though countries are showing increased international support -- the Australian government sent out support teams during the mudslide in the Philippines -- the large-scale post-tsunami cooperation, directed by Thailand, will likely never happen again. Thus, communities must become stronger and use more innovative means in their capacities to handle unforeseen events -- such as crippling waves sent from oceanic earthquakes.

"There is a need for a new paradigm for the involvement of communities in their own response to disasters," wrote Atwood in his colloquium presentation. "A model is needed where local people, respected and empowered as survivors and not diminished as â??victims,' regroup and reconstruct their own lives using available resources."

But to do so, first responders, private industry and governments must thoroughly document disasters, learn from past lessons and change behaviors accordingly.

"Until now," the PLoS paper said, "the failure to document and learn following mass fatality natural disasters means that similar mistakes occur time and time again."
Jessica Weidling Staff Writer