...the villagers are still in shock, Ko jum village is deserted and the people are still in the hills. The islanders really need some space to heal right now, there were two people killed on the island and 15 fis[h]ermen are missing. Things are very bad on Koh Jum now, most of the villagers are refusing to come down from the mountain, they refuse to eat fish because of the dead bodies in the water and they wont go fishing for the same reason. - January 2nd report, SOS Koh Jum site (donations accepted)
This may seem hard to believe unless you've been reading lots and lots of news reports, but in many places villagers are still terrified. When what was a tranquil sea swallows up people, homes and long-tail boats mercilessly without warning and no one can tell you anything reliable about whether another one is coming, I'm not sure you'd want to come down either.
One of the scariest things about the tsunami that I've not seen mentioned is the complete lack of information. This may seem minor, but it is terrifying to hear rumor after rumor after rumor (oft stated as "reliable" information) that another tidal wave "bigger than the last" will be coming at exactly 1 p.m. or perhaps tonight or perhaps...
You don't even know if it is safe to go back down to the water to catch a boat to the hospital. "We think that Phi Phi Hospital is destroyed." "We think this boat is going to Phuket Hospital, but if it's too dangerous to land at its pier then perhaps it will go to Krabi instead which is more protected." "We don't think another wave is coming right away."
I was not thinking entirely rationally I'll admit, but I definitely had to be talked into leaving the safe haven of the Phi Phi Hill Resort and climbing down its labyrinth of stairs hugging the cliffside back down to another beach to flag down a boat.
At the Phi Phi Hill Resort, I was tucked into a corner furthest away from the television, but I strained to listen for information. They reported that there was an 8.5 magnitude earthquake in Sumatra which triggered the massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Having this news was comforting in some small way to understand what had just happened to us. However, the report focused on what had already occured and offered absolutely no information on what to expect now.
Although there were a few people with cellphones up at the Phi Phi Hill, no one really seemed to know anything either. I don't recall if there were Internet access at the bungalow resort; but if there were I'm sure someone would have thought of it. Their website lists no email address.
In general, everything was merely hearsay and rumor and not a single person I spoke to for over 36 hours knew anything with any certainty.
I know information was even more scarce in other parts of the Indian Ocean. No, the Internet is not everywhere. No, television is not everywhere. In fact, electricity is not everywhere - many of the islands we were on prior to the tsunami were generator-dependent after sundown (and that's mainly for the foreigner's benefit). Cellphones are a tad more pervasive (and yet I only saw a handful in a room of 60-80 people at Phi Phi Hill), but you have to have somewhere reliably informed to call. (On the innovation front, perhaps SMS alerts may be a viable solution to reach some folks but I'm sure many fisherman don't own cellphones.) That said, I remember telling the German father at the Seasons Bungalows Christmas party in Koh Jum struggling with his cell phone at the dinner table while his son played with the Christmas candles that I'd seen some people talking on the beach earlier. He was walking well into the Andaman Sea still trying to get some reception when he gave up. Of course, that's not to mention post-tsunami many cellphones are floating out at sea; only the folks on boats or hillside bungalows managed to save theirs. (I'm still stupified when people in the Bangkok hotel or at the airport are told I was in the tsunami on Phi Phi but still ask me: Is that all your luggage?)
When you live in a simple bamboo hut and fish for a living, you are not living in the always-on broadband world folks in the industrialized West take for granted. When the tsunami hit, we were on a more remote beach on Phi Phi; only the twenty or so tourists on my tour and one Thai family were on it.
Information starts out being very highly localized. We only knew what happened to us at first. Eventually, two young men ran down from their uphill bungalows with some first aid to warn us about the (so-called now, but definitive then) 1 p.m. tsunami. What time is it now? Um, about 12:30. The two men were the first source of information we had and the first time we learned a bit more of the impact to the rest of the island. Slowly over the course of days, the impact of the disaster spreads out from the local microcosm to the global.
The Thai man whose beach hut is destroyed walks by me. I'm laying flat on my back on the hiking trail with my leg on a log trying to stay calm and collected for my own sake and the kids on our tour (they are more terrified when the adults around them are). He tells me he is walking to Long Beach (or Hat Yao) to find out more and check up on his friends. It is a 20-minute hike away. This is how information was relayed in the first hours, and for some stranded, days.
A Swedish woman (mentioned earlier) wanted to make sure she ran in the right direction after the first wave struck and serendipitiously bumped into a Thai policeman. Which way to the hills? (Unfortunately, there are not many hills in Khao Lak, Thailand.)He looked down at her young children and told her she didn't have much time - she'd have to carry both of them and run. She didn't stop racing for seven kilometers.
When she arrived, people were huddled and prepared to spend the night in the jungle. An eight-year-old girl was there on her own. The Swedish woman said she heard that five waves in total hit Khao Lak - a number I cannot verify. What I do know is that the people huddled in that forest that evening heard and believed four more waves hit Khao Lak in the next 24 hours, and that is frightening enough. No one had any idea when it would be safe and how to even know if it was safe to come back down.
My trust in "information" was such that when she told me that she walked by a large military-like vessel slammed into the land a few kilometers up in her hike, I was incredulous. [Yup, true. If I find the picture again, I'll upload it.] I really didn't believe anything anymore and I thought perhaps I had merely misunderstood her English translation. She also said she witnessed the body of the prince of Thailand airlifted along with the princess, whom was still alive. Somehow I believed this bit of information and whispered it to my boyfriend when we were on the C-130. He replies, "You can't believe everything you hear. Besides, if that were true, you'd think we'd have heard about it by now."
The average time spent (from many of the first-hand reports I heard) of those that escaped into the jungle hills - whether in Phi Phi, Khao Lak or elsewhere - is two nights.
Those stranded in Patong often didn't escape to the hills (although the Aussie's wife was an exception), but on high-rise hotel rooftops instead. A Toronto couple managed to scamper and cling onto the second floor of their hotel in the middle of the tidal wave. As the injured were higher priority, they patiently waited eating fried rice meal after meal until a few days later they were retreived and taken into Phuket Town. A mother and daughter from Australia waited on the roadside in Patong for two days to be picked up as they watched vehicles continuously pass by them. No one had any inkling if an aftershock earthquake would trigger a second wave while they patiently waited and if they'd be warned this time around.
The Aussie man reunited with his wife told me that CNN reported after the tsunami hit Thailand that Phi Phi island was destroyed. (Perhaps he mentioned this as he was surprised to meet survivors from Phi Phi?) Our parents heard the same thing on CNN and were freaked (it's entirely possible parents - being parents - exaggerated in their minds the extent of demise of Phi Phi portrayed in news accounts). I have a sense - and it's only a sense - that the first reports by the press were also a bit raw and lacking in total reliability.
Other than the TV set at the Phi Phi Hill Resort between roughly 1 and 3 p.m. on December 26th, I never saw TV again until Monday night at the university auditorium (our lodging for the evening). I didn't get on the Internet until Monday noonish at Phuket Vachira Hospital (all times Phuket local; 12 hours ahead of New York) and then I only had time to quickly inform my family and cut and paste portions of their email message into a blog entry. The blog entry was an afterthought (a public cc: email) as I noted in my inbox that many had written to me to ask about my safety. There was absolutely no time for surfing news. But the danger was over by then - at least for me - and I wasn't stranded up in a hill any longer where information was at a premium.
The kind of information that might be useful sometimes is simple. Sometimes technology isn't the only solution. A ten-year-old British girl whom had recently studied tsunamis in geography class warned a beach full of people and saved countless lives. Not five minutes before the tsunami hit, I was at the shoreline watching the tide. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I admit that I watched the strong tide go in and out. I was mesmerized and captivated by its hypnotic and eerie quality. Knowing what I know now, the deep receding tide and its strong steady return mark the approach of a tsunami.
The Aussie gentlemen in the pickup truck to Phuket Airport told me that locals were clamoring to catch all the exposed crabs in the receding tide while the Japanese tourists were shouting, No! No! A man from Khao Lak recounted to me at the consulate's office how he turned to his wife and said, "Wow, the tide is really rough today." She looked at the shore for the first time that morning and immediately yelled, "Run!" Had they hesitated for even 15 more seconds, he says somberly, they would surely have not had enough time to locate the nearby small bamboo-covered incline and start clawing their way up, grasping the bamboo branches and hoping it'd hold them without falling.
Of course, being an expert in signs of tsunami does me about as much good now as being an expert in cougar sightings - and living to tell about it. I once stared down a cougar face-to-face (surprisingly not as scary - at least for me - as it sounds) during a solo mountain trail run in Utah. Now that I know exactly what to do in said situation, I'm likely never again to see a cougar - or witness a tsunami - in my lifetime.
I feel reluctant to share this and won't go into details in this post, but I feel that I didn't trust my instincts or pay attention enough that day and I didn't Blink (thinking without thinking, using your sixth sense for guidance) when I should have.
I don't profess to offer any answers, but write to shed some reality into discussions I see occuring regarding similar future disaster prevention and information dissemination.