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Tsunami Reflections – Aftermath of a Disaster

by Michael Babcock

See also: Thai Reflections, also by Michael Babcock.

This article was written soon after the tsunami that devastated southern Thailand (as well is Indonesia) in December 2004.

The Media

The first we heard of what turned out to be a major disaster affecting the entire region was on the day the tsunami hit, when our driver received a phone call from home. His relatives called him to say that they had felt a long earthquake, 4 or 5 minutes long, in the land-locked city of Nakhon Si Thammarat in the South of Thailand. It was so long that some of the weaker, older people had trouble standing up afterwards. Only later did we begin to hear about the massive waves that so devastated some of the beaches of Thailand.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about the whole disaster for us was the extent to which the disaster was misunderstood by our friends and family in the United States. From what we know, the media coverage about Thailand appears to have been terrible. Kasma had a scheduled trip to the South of Thailand that was to arrive in Thailand on January 15, not even 3 weeks after the waves hit. We immediately began getting concerned inquiries from the trip members, who were being urged by their family to cancel the trip and not go to Southern Thailand. This was without even waiting to see what the extent of the damage would turn out to be. One trip member's family even urged them not to even set foot in Thailand – somewhat akin to a person not coming to San Francisco because there had been mud slides in Los Angeles.

In their zeal to display images of death and destruction, the media forgot to make it clear that the devastation in Thailand affected a very small area of the South. There were basically 3 areas where the waves destroyed a great deal of property and where people died: Don Sai bay on Phi Phi Don island in Krabi province, some parts of the island of Phuket, and the Ao Luk area (on the coast to the North of Phuket). Although waves hit other places and there were some buildings destroyed, the loss of life elsewhere was minimal. From the reaction we saw, people seemed to think the entire South of Thailand had been all but completely destroyed. In fact, even in the hardest hit areas only a small percentage of the people there were injured or killed.

One picture that we saw reproduced in newspapers and magazines symbolizes this media irresponsibility for me. It shows a wave "swallowing" the restaurant of the Chedi Resort in Phuket. In Time magazine the headline reads "Sea of Sorrow: A massive earthquake triggers a powerful tsunami that kills tens of thousands across Asia. Unforgettable images tell the story." The implication is that this picture shows a scene that is part of the massive death toll. This resort never even had to close: they lost their beach front restaurant and virtually nothing else. Many beaches in Phuket were virtually unaffected, yet people thought that the whole island had all but been destroyed.

One reason for all the spectacular coverage of the damage in Phuket came down to a simple reason – journalists could still use the airport and, because of the excellent Thai infrastructure, easily get out to damaged areas.

We read in the Bangkok Post that the Thai government had made a formal complaint to CNN because it had shown images of destruction from Sri Lanka while talking about Thailand. The destruction and death toll was immeasurably greater elsewhere in the region, in Indonesia and Sri Lanka in particular. Many of the people we know back in the states didn't seem to be able to separate the more serious loss of life and property elsewhere with what happened in Thailand. This was particularly true with regards to the fear of disease following the disaster. Thailand is a modern country with an excellent infrastructure: there never was much of a danger of disease spreading because of this base and because of the quick response of the Thai government. Yet this was one of the main concerns of the people who were going on Kasma's southern trip.

I do not wish to make light of what happened in Thailand: up to 10,000 people lost their lives, while the homes and livelihoods of a large numbers of Thai citizens were destroyed. However, the media focused in Thailand on the touristed areas that were most damaged – a decidedly western & Caucasian bias. Less well covered were the many Thai coastal villages that were destroyed, along with the boats that provided the villagers with their livelihood. The two main English-speaking newspapers in Thailand covered many stories where these villagers complained that the massive outpouring of aid and assistance had completely bypassed them, going instead to the resort areas where Westerners had died. In fact, when we drove through some of these villages over a month after the tsunami, there were numerous complaints that the promised aid still had not arrived at all.

Tsunami Lessons

An article in the February 9, 2005 The Nation entitled "Could mangroves help stem the tide?" (p. 9A) tells of how areas that were still protected by mangrove forests had much less damage than the areas where the mangroves had been destroyed. This is a common theme in many stories that came out after the tsunami – the areas that were the hardest hit were those where the natural protection had been destroyed by development.

These natural protective elements include the reefs: when there was a viable, living reef it slowed down the wave so that it reached the land with much less force. Phi Phi Don, in particular, as well as the areas hit in Phuket had severely damaged reefs, from too many snorkelers, too many boats coming through (both large boats bringing construction materials and long-tail boats bringing snorkelers), and then sewage dumped directly in the water.

Another protective element, according to a story in the Bangkok Post (I did not save the reference) was a second layer of sand dunes. Often, it said, there would be two layers of dunes, both of which would serve to slow down the waves; but often resorts had been built directly on the second dune, losing that protective layer. Another article in the Feb. 15, 2005 Bangkok Post – "Sand Dune Saviour" by Vasana Chinvarakorn (Outlook p. 01) – told how the Kata-Karon beach at Phuket had much less damage because of the prior attempts to restore the sand dune. The only serious damage on that beach was to a hotel where the sand dune had been removed.

Another factor in the large death tolls in Phi and Ao Luk, in particular, was the over-development, the large number of resorts and buildings constructed one after another, leaving no place for people to escape. In Ao Luk in 2002 there were 2,500 rooms for tourists: in 2004, there were 10,000. Many of the deaths in Ao Luk occurred in one area in particular that had seen a great deal of mining; an aftermath of this activity were a large number of deep holes into which people and debris were swept with no way for them to escape: bodies in these areas were particularly difficult to recover. At Don Sai bay on Phi Phi Don, it was wall-to-wall construction with no place to run; even here, I read that there were about 600 to 700 deaths, out of 10,000 to 12,000 people who were there. Most people did survive.

Another factor in many of the deaths was the peoples' response to the waves. In most places there were three waves, the first large but not devastating, followed by two increasingly large and destructive waves. The signs of impending disaster were definitely there for someone who knew how to read them. The newspaper had many stories about people who read the signs correctly and saved themselves and others, from a boat captain, to the sea gypsies in Koh Surin National Park (see below), to the 10-year old British girl who learned about tsunamis at school and saved 100 tourists on Phuket. (See Girl saves tourists after raising tsunami warning.) There were also many accounts about people who saw the first big wave and then did exactly the wrong thing – they went towards the beach to go look at the big wave. A friend who was at Phuket reported on how as he was running away from the beach, other people were walking towards it to see what was happening. Other stories told of how animals, from elephants to water buffalo, stampeded away from the ocean before the big waves hit. If we humans kept our connection to nature, we would know how better to respond to natural phenomena.

One of the lessons that was talked about in the papers in the tsunami aftermath concerned how many of the resorts that had been swept away had been built illegally on national park land (with knowing collaboration of the officials of the region, who profited monetarily from looking in the other direction). It was widely mentioned that now that the tsunami had swept away these resorts, there was a real opportunity to restore the beaches and to develop them more responsibly, with an eye towards ecology and natural beauty. Although I hope that Thailand is able to do this, I am not very optimistic. The huge number of rooms built at Ao Luk in such a short time indicates that they have not learned the lesson that overdevelopment of a naturally beautiful region can destroy the very reason that people are coming there in the first place. The prospect of easy money is just too alluring.

What we found in the South

Tarutao National Park

Tarutao National Park, the Southernmost park in Thailand directly next to Malaysia, was hardly mentioned in the news reporting about the tsunami so we expected to see little damage and our expectations were met. We stayed there starting January 23, not even one month after the tsunami. We saw a small amount of overturned coral in the outermost area of some of the reefs and a certain amount of overturned staghorn coral. The effect of the tsunami was most seen in Tarutao by the small number of tourists visiting there. Usually the resorts on Koh Lipeh, were we stay, are filled with vacationers. The resort where we stayed had maybe 2 or 3 other rooms rented; our favorite resort down the beach, had quite a few less guests than could be expected during the high season. Even though Tarutao was barely affected, people were staying away in droves.

Krabi & Phi Phi Islands

In the public's eye, Krabi was anathema after the tsunami, primarily because of guilt by association with Phi Phi Don, scene of some of the most spectacular devastation, is in Krabi. The rest of Krabi was not affected very much, save for the destruction of a large number of long-tail boats and many homes. On Ao Nang Bay, one of the popular tourist destinations, there was almost no damage. One five-star resort (The Dusit Rayavadee) at Hat Tham Phra Nang (Princess Cave Beach) was badly damaged but not much else. When we visited Krabi in late January (a month after the tsunami) this resort was still being rebuilt but there was virtually no damage visible at nearby Railay Beach.

On one of the days of the trip we went snorkeling in the Phi Phi islands. We did not visit Phi Phi Don. When Kasma first started doing the trips (in 1986) she stayed at Phi Phi Don, which at that time was still undeveloped and pristine in its beauty. On my first trip to Thailand in 1992 we stopped there for lunch and it had become so overrun with resorts that Kasma swore never to visit there again. It was wall-to-wall resorts, restaurants and shops catering to tourists. Paradise had been destroyed.

We did find a certain amount of damage to many of the reefs. That being said, there was still excellent snorkeling to be had. One of our favorite areas contains a wall lined with beautiful sea fans: most of them had survived, save for a couple in the direct path of the waves.

Again, the biggest impact could be seen in the lack of tourists. When we went to Maya Bay, where the movie The Beach was filled, the lack of boats was almost shocking. Where normally you have trouble finding a buoy to anchor to, we were one of two, then three boats, in the cove. Kasma normally doesn't bother to get on the beach – it's usually wall-to-wall people. There were 4 other people on the beach when we arrived and a couple more showed up later: that was all.

One thing we had been told by people in the area was that the beaches looked like they did twenty years ago and that all the garbage had been swept away. The beach at Maya Bay did look different – more sand, swept up by the tsunami. Unfortunately it will probably take many years (if ever) to be as beautiful as it was before 20th Century Fox destroyed it to make their movie. The beach originally had a beautiful sand dune anchored in place by years and years of natural growth. 20th Century Fox felt that paradise should be improved upon by planting a grove of coconut trees (which the beach did not have). After the movie they tore out the trees and "restored" the dunes; predictably, because years of anchoring had been destroyed, the first monsoon swept the dune into the sea. When I first returned after the movie, I was shocked at the gratuitous destruction of this beautiful beach.

As elsewhere, tourism was way down in Krabi. We stay in town at a wonderful hotel – the Krabi Maritime Resort – and when we arrived towards the end of January, a month after the tsunami, we were actually the first tour group that had not canceled after the tsunami. Whole sections of this normally bustling resort had been closed off. Everywhere we went the missing tourists stood out by their absence.

Koh Surin National Park

We were originally scheduled to visit Koh Surin on January 17, not even 3 weeks after the tsunami. Our visit was postponed at the last possible minute (9:00 pm the night before we were to come) because of concerns about seeing the beaches not at their best. It was probably best we delayed going because it gave the park employees more time to clean up and make things right. We ended up visiting Surin on Feb. 2, 3 & 4.

The main damage at Koh Surin was to the Park Headquarters at Mae Yai bay of North Koh Surin. The headquarters had been destroyed along with the new dining area. When we arrived, we still could not stay at this area because it was still being rebuilt – damage was visible from the boat as we went past. Instead we stayed over at the Mai Ngahm Bay campground. The only visible damage here were a fair number of trees that looked to be dying, probably dying from inundation of salt water they received. Because the national park tents had been swept away, we rented new tents from the company that ferried us over.

We had read that the total coral damage at Koh Surin was about 10%. We did, in fact, come across a fair amount of damage: particularly to shallow reefed areas that had been covered with sand. There were areas where coral had been overturned (staghorn coral, brain coral and the like). That being said, the snorkeling remains spectacular. The increase in coral damage was more than offset by the increased number of fish that we saw. We saw many large schools of fish, some varieties, such as a memorable school of bat fish, that the park people said had not been seen before in Koh Surin. Kasma says that her favorite reef at Darin Lao was better than it had ever been. Turtle Bay was spectacular with school after school of various fishes. We saw more sharks than before. There were a fair number of turtles to be seen. In short, Surin still has the best snorkeling in Thailand.

And again, the litany of missing tourists. We actually arrived within a couple days of the official park opening and we were the first group to arrive. In the past there was a daily ferry boat to and from Koh Surin. The boat we went out on stayed there to take us back 3 days later: it is not worth their while to run the ferry unless they have enough people. The next group was not scheduled to arrive for several days. Normally in the high season (when we were there) Mai Ngahm has in the neighborhood of 150 people staying there with the tents lined up in rows: there were a total of 26 one night and maybe 33 the other (a private boat arrived). Many of the trip members exclaimed that this was paradise: we pointed out that if there had been another 100+ people on the beach, they might not have thought so!

We were initially concerned about the Moken people (sea gypsies) who make their home on one of the islands in the Surin park. Not so much for their safety but rather for their homes, which were traditionally built homes on stilts that looked like a good wind could blow them over. We were not too concerned for their safety because these are people who choose to live on the land during the non-monsoon season and who live on boats in the ocean during the monsoon season, when the seas are roughest. If anyone should be able to read signs of impending danger in the sea, it would be them.

And they were fine. They correctly read the signs of the impending tsunami from the behavior of the sea and headed to high ground. Many of the employees at the park are Moken, so they all had advanced warning as well. There was only one person missing (a tourist) after the tsunami at Surin and it turned out that he had been taken in by the Moken. Kasma was very moved by a quote from a Moken man (she read it in the Bangkok Post): "The sea is always kind. It doesn't mean to hurt anybody. We just need to know when to be in it and when not." Wise words indeed.

We did later read that all of their homes had been destroyed and they were temporarily "relocated" to the mainland. They were not happy there, especially with the provisions they were given that they considered "non-food." They missed their fish! We found out that UNESCO took care of them and provided temporary housing and boats so they are back on Surin. The houses provided were, unfortunately, pre-fabricated houses. What used to be a colorful, fun village to visit now must look like any of dozens other temporary places throughout Thailand. I would guess that the Moken would prefer their original homes (much cooler, for one) and hopefully will go back to living in the traditional way.

Ao Luk Area

We finally encountered real tsunami damage when we drove down the coast in the Ao Luk area. Resort after resort had visible damage and destruction. Perhaps most shocking was the dearth of vegetation in many areas, both swept away and killed by the inundation of salt water. In some areas we could see that the waves had swept in for what looked like hundreds of meters, destroying buildings and trees as it came. It will take many years for this area to recover: structures can be re-built but it will take time and many monsoons to leech the salt out of the soil so that the lush vegetation can again take root.

As non-Thai speakers, we were spared perhaps the most heart-rending part of this ride. We passed a number of re-location areas, temporary wooden structures built by the government to house the many hundreds (thousands?) of villagers whose homes had been destroyed. Kasma said that there were many signs (in Thai) saying, essentially, "We want to return to the land where we were born and where we lived, where we make our homes and our lives." She said that in many cases the villagers are not being allowed to return to their land and are being offered land away from the coast where they can resettle. But these are people who grew up on the coast and made their living from the ocean, mostly by fishing. They know no other livelihood or way or life and they do not want anything other than what they had. Although they are being told that they can have this inland land because it will be safer, one suspects that perhaps the officials involved are looking forward to the day when this beachfront land can again be the source of great profit and wealth.

And, in fact, an article in the Saturday, February 19, 2005 Financial Times – "After tsunamis come speculators with eyes on Thai coastal land" by Amy Kazmin (page 3). talked about instances in which villagers are trying to return to their homes only to be told that the land is now owned by some large corporation. In some instances, they are restrained from even going to the wreckage of their homes to see what they can recover. Hopefully journalists throughout Thailand and the world will continue to expose this obscene land grab and attempts to profit from the misery of the people whose homes were destroyed by the waves.

Final Thoughts

We had possibly the best Southern trip ever this year, traveling to the "devastated" south. Ironically, our trip members were so concerned about the tsunami aftermath that they were nervous about coming on the trip. Two people even cancelled, despite the lack of a refund. What the lucky ten people who persevered found was a naturally beautiful area with very few signs of destruction; and it was made even more beautiful by the lack of other visitors. This is probably your very best opportunity to visit the South of Thailand – it will be awhile before the tourists return and until then you have an opportunity to see these places uncrowded and pristine. In fact, Kasma decided to offer a Southern Trip next year (January/February 2006) rather than the regularly scheduled trip in two years (January/February 2007) to take advantage of the hiatus is tourism.

I think what has been most lacking in the coverage of Thailand's tsunami is the human face of the Thai people who suffered. We were able to meet many of these people who had their livelihoods and their homes and, in many instances, their family torn from them by the tsunami. I am thinking of the Muslim fisher-folk along the coast in particular. I'm also thinking of the many "little people" who made their living from tourism. Certainly, I'm of two minds about tourism in Thailand: it visibly has destroyed some of the most beautiful areas on the planet and from that point of view, the tsunami can be seen as a cleansing agent, helping to restore nature's beauty. On the other hand, there is a human face: the people who are suffering the most from missing tourists are those that have the least. There is the waitress from Isahn (NE Thailand) who came to Phuket in order to send money home to her family. There's the masseuse far away from home helping her family to survive. There's the kanom (Thai snack) vendor who supported his family by selling snacks to the tourists.

All of these people are part of the human cost of this disaster. A natural disaster hits and the media goes crazy, painting the images of death and destruction that fascinate people and keep them glued to the news for day after day. But then the news value ends and the cameras go home – leaving the people whose lives were affected to put their lives back together, often with very little assistance. And what happens to all of our assistance money that we donate? I hope it gets to where it's needed – but the indications we saw were that in too many instances it takes far to long to get there. It is also unclear what other measures will be taken to protect the villagers and whether or not local officials will collude in robbing them of their land and homes.

Copyright © 2005 Michael Babcock. All rights reserved.

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