KILLER WAVES

Print edition : January 14, 2005

Massive ocean waves triggered by an undersea earthquake on December 26 cause thousands of deaths and enormous destruction in India, Sri Lanka, and other South and South-East Asian countries.

in Chennai

As the tsunami struck the Tamil Nadu coast. A scene from Ennore in Chennai.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

MASSIVE ocean waves unleashed by an undersea earthquake that had its epicentre 250 kilometres southeast of Banda Aceh in Sumatra in Indonesia, the most powerful in 40 years, cut a swathe of destruction in a coastal arc across South Asia and South-East Asia on the morning of December 26. India and Sri Lanka were the worst affected countries. More than 15,000 people were reported killed at the time of writing, and most of the deaths occurred in these two countries. The Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia too suffered serious destruction and human casualties. The quake measured 8.9 on the Richter scale.

In India, the Tamil Nadu coast and the Andaman and Nicobar islands took the brunt of the tsunami, or killer wave, strikes. The toll in Tamil Nadu stood at more than 3,500, including 160 deaths in Chennai, the State capital. About 2,000 persons were killed in Nagapattinam district alone, which has been a victim of cyclones year after year. The ferocity of the waves that hit Nagapattinam town was unimaginable. The waves lifted up mechanised trawlers, spun them around, and dumped them on the railway track there. One, weighing several tonnes, landed on the railway line to Nagore. About 50 trawlers suffered damage. Water entered 1.5 km inside the town. Communications and electricity supply were cut off in the affected areas. Bodies lay everywhere on the beach. The Church of Our Lady of Health at Velankanni, a famous pilgrim centre, is situated near Nagapattinam. Hundreds of pilgrims were on the beach at Velankanni when the tsunami slammed in. Most of them were swept away by the waves. Many of the pilgrims had come from Kerala, Goa and Karnataka.

Elsewhere on the coast in the district, bodies were found washed ashore, and most of them were those of children and women. Huge waves engulfed the coastal areas of Vedaranyam, Seerkazhi and Puddupattinam. About 150 persons drowned in Puddupattinam.

Mass burial for the victims at Velipalayam in Nagapattinam town.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

The majority of those killed were women and children, especially fisherfolk or tourists who were on the beaches. The waves that were several metres high lifted up catamarans and fishing vessels and left them several hundred metres away from the shore. In Kancheepuram district, thousands of people fled their homes and scrambled up four hillocks at Tirukazhukunram, 6 km away, after gigantic waves surged into Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), where the famed Pallava monuments are situated. It took several hours for the District Collector and other officials to convince them to return home.

Powerful waves swept into nearby Kalpakkam, where two nuclear power reactors are located. Six feet of water entered the world-famous temple at Mamallapuram, and about 60 persons lost their lives at Kalpakkam. Mamallapuram, which bustles with tourists from across the globe, suddenly turned a ghost town.

Waves smashed through the groyne wall and fence on the Mamallapuram beach and entered the Shore Temple, which is chiselled out of rock. There is about two metres of water inside the temple, which has been declared a World Heritage Monument by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The Shore Temple forms part of monuments sculpted by the Pallava Kings during the seventh and eighth century A.D. A miniature temple and a sculpture of a boar, which had been excavated on the basement of the Shore Temple, were flooded.

According to Dr.T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai Circle, tourists saw to their surprise that the waves exposed hitherto unknown temples behind the Shore Temple. However, in their shock, they could not take pictures of the temples that surfaced into view. The temples were covered up again with sand when the waves receded. Dr. Satyamurthy refuted the view that it was a myth that more temples had been sculpted beyond the Shore Temple. More temples did exist, he said.

G. Saravanan, Conservation Assistant, ASI, Mamallapuram, said the famed Five Rathas were not affected. Sea water rushed into Salavankuppam and dumped sand on the Tiger's Cave, which forms part of the Mamallapuram monuments.

At Kalpakkam, about 16 km away, waves smashed into the township of the employees of the Madras Atomic Power Station. Five employees of the nuclear facilities, who were out on the beach in the morning, were killed. One of those killed was Dr. A. Selvaraj, Design Engineer, Reactor Engineering Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research. He was attending a mass in the church.

Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, who visited the nuclear facilities and the township at Kalpakkam on December 27, said both the nuclear power reactors of MAPS were safe.

In Cuddalore district, islands such as Chinnavaikaal, MGR Thittu and Killai were cut off from the mainland by the waves. Twenty-three villages were marooned. More than 200 persons were killed. Water entered the Government Arts College campus in the town.

In Kanyakumari district, hundreds of pilgrims were stranded on the hillock where the Vivekanda Rock Memorial stands. As waves swirled around the rock, IAF helicopters winched several pilgrims to safety.

About 100 persons lost their lives in Andhra Pradesh. More than 700 are missing. The districts affected are Nellore, Krishna, East Godavari, West Godavari, Prakasam and Visakhapatnam. About 26 pilgrims who were observing the Margazira full moon festival (December 26 was a full moon day) on the beach at Mangirapudi in Krishna district were washed away. Also, a busload of pilgrims on the beach went missing.

As waves towered up from the impounded waters of the fishing harbour in Visakhapatnam city, mechanised trawlers started colliding with one another. One trawler was tossed up and the fish catch kept in it was scattered about everywhere in the harbour. The trawler drivers drove away their boats quickly and deftly, precluding more damage. Visakhapatnam city itself was not affected because of the protection offered by the Dolphin Hills situated right on the coast.

The two launch pads at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) on the Sriharikota island, from where the launch vehicles of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) lift off, were unaffected. K. Narayana, Director, SDSC, said the launch pads including the second one, which was yet to become operational, were safe.

In Kerala, situated on the western coast, tsunamis that rose from the Arabian Sea surged into the coast. Kollam district suffered badly; 86 persons lost their lives there. Another 21 died in Alappuzha district. Waves a few metres tall hit the coast in these districts. They smashed canoes parked on the shore. Fishermen panicked when water swept into their homes. Hundreds of huts disappeared into the sea. Waves swept into the coast in the Malabar region as well. Tsunamis occurred twice again in the afternoon.

The impact of the waves was felt in coastal and southern Orissa, including the capital Bhubaneswar but there was no loss of life or property. Panic gripped the residents of Bhubaneswar and other places when they felt the tremors at around 6-30 a.m. The tremors, which measured between 2 and 3 on the Richter scale, lasted about 30 seconds.

An official of the Meteorological Centre in Bhubaneswar said, "What Orissa experienced was the result of a ripple effect of the quake in Indonesia." Although the sea-level rose along the 480-km long coastline of Orissa, there was no tidal surge in the State as it happened in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Tremors were also felt in Balasore, Jajpur, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack, Puri and other districts. The fear that there may be aftershocks dominated the minds of people throughout the day. "It was a touch and go situation in Orissa, and at the end of the day everybody heaved a sigh of relief," said R. Balakrishnan, Special Relief Commissioner.

In West Bengal, ripple effects were felt in hundreds of ponds and lakes situated not only in the coastal districts but also on the river banks. From many ponds, fish were thrown out on to the banks. Only one person lost his life in the State.

In Cuddalore after the waves attacked the coast.-ARKO DATTA/REUTERS

PRIME MINISTER Manmohan Singh spoke to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, Lieutenant-Governor of Andaman and Nicobar island Ramachandra Ganesh Kapase, and Lieutenant-Governor of Pondicherry M.M. Lakhera. He promised all help to the affected States, including Kerala and Orissa. He sent messages of sympathy to the Presidents of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and the Prime Minister of Thailand. He promised assistance to these "friendly nations, should our help be required." Three naval vessels sailed to Galle and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to help in the relief effort (see separate story). Helicopters were despatched to take part in the rescue and relief effort in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Jayalalitha, who made an aerial survey of the affected coastal districts of Tamil Nadu both on December 26 and 27, said the State had been struck by "an extraordinary calamity of unprecedented proportions and extreme ferocity". She said it all happened in 20 minutes all along the Tamil Nadu coast.

"It was a terrible sight. I am shocked and I have no words to describe the situation. In Velankanni, Akkarai and Nagore, the death toll is very large. I could see dead bodies all around and the devastation is of colossal proportions," the Chief Minister said.

The unusual phenomenon of tsunamis has shaken India badly, particularly Tamil Nadu.

With inputs from R. Sampath in Visakhapatnam, K. Subramanian in Nagapattinam, V. Venkatasubramanian in Kancheepuram, A.V. Raghunathan in Cuddalore, Prafulla Das in Bhubaneswar and Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata.

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