Tsunami 2006: I was there

Tsunami 2006 Andaman Island

The morning of December 26, 2006 a huge earthquake and following tsunami hit the whole Pacific rim.  The story of that event is well reported now.  However, I was on an Andaman Island when the whole event occurred, and I thought that I should add my personal story for whatever use it may have.


It was about seven AM local time the day after Christmas.  I had awakened to a bright sunshine morning and lay in my hotel bed contemplating my plans for the day.  There were no special sounds and certainly no warning sounds.  I had no television, but I could hear muffled voices from the next door room where my friend was already awake and operating her two-way short wave radio.  On the fifth, top, floor of my hotel, with a great view of the sea, I felt very peaceful.


Suddenly, my bed began to shake somewhat.  I jumped out and upon standing, I felt the floor of my room tilt enough to make standing and walking difficult.  I immediately knew that it was an earthquake, and I moved unsteadily to brace myself in the door to the room bathroom.   Small items like shampoo bottles were falling.  I had no shelves and all my gear was on the second bed, so as I held to the door frame, I could tell that the shock was not hugely severe as nothing large was displaced and the room walls did not crack.  The shaking seemed to last minutes and then stopped completely.  I was nude.  I pulling on pants and shirt, grabbed my video camera and ran out and down the stairs.  Outside were virtually all of the hotel guests and staff, standing clear of the building.  There was no panic, and it was clear that the hotel had withstood the earthquake very well.  There was no electricity.  The hotel electric generator started and the hotel staff and myself went back inside.  Back in my room, I dressed more completely including adding shoes and got more camera batteries and blank videotape.  Going back outside, I noticed mild sprinklings of wall plaster dust and very few wall cracks.  I sat with other guests outside as the staff served tea.


At that time several aftershocks occurred, but they were not as severe as the first.  I told everyone in earshot that an ocean earthquake usually causes a tsunami.  No one paid heed to me.  I drank my tea, marveling at what I had gone through.  During the event, I had no fear because of my instantly-formed and firm belief that I would either be killed immediately in the falling hotel or would be completely ok.  I was sitting on the hotel grounds, a rocky prominence about sixty or eighty feet above high tide, and I felt no fear whatsoever.  I assumed the emergency was over.  The India radio enthusiasts I was with and I returned to the main radio room on the top floor.  Nothing was damaged and the yagi antenna on a pole on the roof was ok.  The main operator began calling the Indian mainland and reporting we were all safe.  Other team members came in from other parts of the city and reported very minimal damage.  The hotel electric generator was working, but the room television set could not deliver clear pictures nor audio.  Despite my mentioning that a tsunami should be coming, we all felt safe.  Several India hobby radio stations were calling us and listening to our story.  There were no sounds of emergency vehicles.  The plaster dust was being swept up, and the hotel was getting back to normal.


About an hour later, I noticed that the ocean visible from our window had changed color from bright blue to a darker shade, something like some sand was mixed with the water.  That color change stretched perhaps a mile out to sea where the blue color remained.  The sea at our location appeared higher but I had not noticed how high the high tide was.  Certainly, there was no surging nor turbulence in the sea in view there.  Our group, along with everyone in the hotel felt that perhaps we should locate outside, and we moved our radio and other gear to the lawn and set up the transmitter there.  The chief operator continued to answer questions about our conditions and to relay news of various hotel staff to relatives on the mainland of India.  I saw no emergency authorities at any time.  Many people set up to sleep outside that night.  I elected to sleep on a sofa in the lobby near the door.  I had to cover my whole body and face with the bed sheet to avoid the many mosquitoes.


After a fitful night, one of our party went to the waterfront of the city and returned with video and news of large pieces of concrete being moved in the first one hundred feet of the beach front.  His reports and video showed no real flooding.  Later, I got word that the local paper reported four deaths over the whole island, two of which were avoidable accidents and two of unknown causes.  The whole island had minimal damage and loss of municipal electricity continued as the only result of consequence or concern. 


I had used the hobby radio to contact a radio hobbyist in Bangkok who relayed my good condition to my wife there and also reported that she was unhurt and had no damage in her area.  I had an air ticket to depart that day, 27th, and decided to use it.  I was of no use in the recovery efforts on the other islands, and my inability to understand the Indian words spoken over the radio meant that if I had tried to help, I would have been a liability instead.  The Port Blair airport was crowded with people departing or trying to get a ticket.  There was no panic and only minimal upset among the people. 


I arrived in Bangkok, and was met at the airport by two ladies from the American Embassy who wanted to know if I were ok and about conditions on the Island.  They were slightly confused by my report of such light problems where I was.  Clearly, my small vision of the whole disaster was not at all typical.  The lesson was obvious that participants inside a disaster may have the worst or most limited understanding of the large picture.  I thought about this fact which seemed to be contrary to common sense.  It is nevertheless very true.


I got back to my Bangkok room and activated my hobby radio to discover that recovery efforts were going on in the Andamans and Nicobars, again not usually in standard spoken English.   Thailand radio hobbyists had deployed to the severely affected areas at the Thailand beaches, but their communications were totally in the Thai language which I do not speak.  To avoid making a problem, I stayed out of the way of both groups and made a few reports in English to the international radio hobbyists that I contacted around the globe.  It was quite obvious that the language barriers in this situation could have complicated recovery efforts but that was not a problem because non-speakers like myself thankfully stayed out of involvement which would have caused only confusion.


I was contacted by the stringer office of ABC News and asked to go to appear on live television to tell my story.  As the count down went on for my appearance, another story “went long,” and I was told that I would not be needed.  I am sure my mild report would have disappointed the news—hungry for strong drama which I could not provide.   I easily suppressed the urge to elaborate my small story, but I did observe how easy it would have been to do so.  That was the end of my Andaman tsunami adventure.


The hobby radio in use on the Island was amateur ham radio, an avocation which often offers emergency communication in disasters as well as providing personal enrichment and enjoyment using short wave two-way radio.  Our group conducting the special radio operations on the Island was the only two-week period such radios were allowed there for over twelve years.  Our radios were the first in the world to report the earthquake (only Japanese hobbyist heard it) and did contribute significantly to recovery by passing messages of emergency and public information.  The frustrating fact that I realized as I drank my tea and looked for a tsunami was that I did have specific knowledge about the earthquake, at least at that location, and I could have put out a tsunami warning, but there was no mechanism to do so.  Even the people sitting with their tea around me paid my words no heed.  I could have used the radio to issue a warning, but there were no people able to hear the warning except a random small group of radio hobbyists who may have received my call.  Even then, those listeners had no way of relaying the warning to authorities and certainly not to the vacationers on the affected beaches.  The experience taught me much about disasters.  It was simple luck (and physics) that my hotel did not receive enough energy to fall down and that I was able to be on site of one of the biggest massive disasters of recorded history and emerge without a scratch.



About Charles Henry Harpole

Retired college teacher of cinema studies and film-making. Film Dept/Program founder and administrator. Buddhist. Amateur "ham" radio operator, HS0ZCW. Prepper evaluator
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