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February 24, 2005

A lesson that bears repeating

The Knills were vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami hit on December 26. They died, but one of them took photos of the receding water and advancing tsunami before the wave killed them. Someone recovered their digital camera and their family made the photos available to the press. They're chilling, especially the first in the series, which is reproduced here without permission in an attempt to save a life or two.

The photo shows a bunch of ocean floor exposed to the air as the water receded. People are exploring, walking around on the uncovered flats. That decision almost certainly killed them.

I don't like to speak ill of the dead. And I would not have figured, were I there at the time, that the oncoming wave could reach up and kill me in a second-floor hotel room a hundred yards from the beach.

But ocean water receding unusually far from shore means one thing, and one thing only. It means there is a tsunami coming, and you should get your sorry ass to higher ground immediately.

<[A previous version of this post was criticized in comments as being too harsh. On reflection, I agreed. So I've deharshened it some.]

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 24, 2005 01:56 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Seems harsh to me. I had NO idea at all that a fast-receding wave of this sort meant a Tsunami. Not a common phenomenon in Chicago where I grew up.

Posted by: C. Schuyler at February 24, 2005 03:55 PM
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Nor in Buffalo, where I grew up.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 24, 2005 04:39 PM
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I had heard it. Would I have remembered it? Would I have acted? I hope I never find out.

The missionary who found those people's camera said he believes the photographers knew they were doomed; that the nearest high ground to them was more than 3 kilometers away, far beyond any chance of reaching it. If so, the photos are a sign of courage rather than stupidity. It seems more generous to the dead to presume the former.

I won't look at the photos. I have enough nightmares.

Posted by: Ian at February 24, 2005 08:11 PM
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It just seems so friggin tellingsomehow, that in this day and age, here is something so eerily personal and personally horrible that I found on a strangers blog.

Posted by: JoJo at February 24, 2005 08:37 PM
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You know, you guys are right. I was too harsh. I'll edit the post.

And I never intended my criticism to include the photographers: just the people who went out onto the mudflats.

So let me amend what I said to this: it is inexcusable that our society can allow people to get to adulthood without being so familiar with a very basic aspect of the natural world that this phenomenon comes as a big shock. There are a dozen people out on those flats. It's sad that not one of them knew.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 24, 2005 09:21 PM
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Chris, so in our hugely complex world where people travel time zones in hours, spend a day or a week and return, are you saying society should teach every child every possible natural disaster and how it could manifest regardless of where that child lives?

I guess the thing that I keep wondering about is whether we've gotten so far removed from the intimate features of our landscape, if we've become so mobile and niched, even where we live, that we don't have a way to tell the stories of the giant waves or the rumbling ground or the swirling cloud to our children. If the myth is lost, and it's several generations before it happens again, where do people learn this?

Posted by: susurra at February 24, 2005 10:18 PM
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(sorry, long comment!)

The second to the last of the photos shows a lone figure, facing the wave. I spent ten minutes considering that photo and the figure. I grew up at the beach, at sea level, and though I was never a particularly brave beach child, I did learn that if you faced a wave too big to ride, you had to dive into it-you could never outrun or outswim it.

Once, I watched a childhood friend put a mouse into a tank with her garter snake and I was surprised to see the mouse step over the snake, to explore the tank. I wondered if the mouse feared the snake, but that it saw no way out (though it didn't show the fear it would have at the appearance of a human hand), or if it was simply unaware of the danger.

Posted by: Eliza at February 24, 2005 11:40 PM
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I knew about how tsunamis first suck all the water out before they come in from reading Michener's Hawaii on the way to Hawaii. Some Hawaiian's haole girlfriend is giggling about the fish flapping around on the beach, so he looks up and basically goes, Shit, let's get out of here. Being a natural worry-wort, I remembered that when I was in Hawaii. But it's such an extremely infrequent occurrence, I don't think you could expect tourists to know about it unless the hotels posted warnings letting people know what to look for and what to do. But the hotels ignored the possibility as much as the officials all around the Indian Ocean who could have set up a warning system like they have around the Pacific.

Posted by: leslee at February 26, 2005 03:20 PM
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