If you've been reading Presently Tense for a while, you probably know that I survived the 2004 Asian tsunami while visiting Phuket, Thailand. Investigating teaching opportunities at the time, I was lucky to be touring the country with a woman named Tuk, the IT director for a K-12 British private school in Bangkok, who translated important stuff—for example, “wing” is the Thai word for “Run!”
Since I live beside the beach in OB, the recent tsunami warning for Southern California in the wake of the Chilean earthquake brought my tsunami experience back to mind.
It occurred to me that on that day in '04 and the day immediately after, I had been sending real-time reports back to friends and family in the U.S. I thought that those reports had been lost in the ether since I don't save sent mail, but I have pieced them back together from friends' saved replies.
As a special Presently Tense feature, I'll share highlights from these never-before-published tsunami eyewitness reports with you over the next two columns, but that means if you run into me at a party, you can't ask me to tell you what it was like. Now you'll know.
Dispatch One: In the Mood for a Stroll
Dec. 26, 2004, 1 p.m.: I'm in Karon Beach, a little south of Patong Beach. We're hearing from the locals that maybe more than 100 are dead in Patong. Here, we lost at least four people. The people who died in the tidal wave were on the beach in the morning. The waves hit fast and hard. Another one is on the way. Much of the area has been evacuated. Earlier, I was helping move bricks out of the road, but now it seems a waste of time with another tsunami on the way. Guests in our hotel have the option of fleeing on foot into the foothills or staying in the hotel and taking their chances. I'm in the mood for a stroll, so I think I'll go for a long walk up to the hills right now. Got my water and chestnuts. The hotel is giving bicycles to guests right now; I better go grab one. I'll try to e-mail again after the next wave.
Dispatch Two: Why I'm Not Dead
Dec. 26, 2004, 5 p.m.: Still alive. The death toll here has risen to 400. Earlier in the day when they were saying “14 missing” over and over again on CNN, we were sure it was a gross underestimate; we heard through the grapevine that at least 27 were dead in the immediate area. Tuk heard from local people that many boats just vanished. Then, considering the tourists on the islands, on ferries, on diving and snorkeling tours, well, who knows? When this is all over, we expect the number of dead here in Southern Thailand to be closer to 1,000. Could be more.
Top 10 reasons why I'm not dead
10. The Old Phuket Hotel is not really old.
9. Since when am I going to be on a beach before 10 a.m.?
8. Kata beach: destroyed. Patong Beach: devastated. South Karon Beach: wrecked. North Karon beach (where I am, in the middle of the others mentioned): not as badly hit.
7. Our snorkeling trip to Phi Phi island is (was?) later this week. If it had been today, I would be a memory.
6. Yesterday's walk on Patong beach was not today.
5. Our hotel room has an outdoor jacuzzi (if we had chosen a hotel without this feature, we likely would have chosen one in Patong beach that had bodies floating through the lobby this morning).
4. I'm not in Sri Lanka.
3. Tuk refuses to expose her skin to the sun for fear of becoming dark like the girls from Isaan (Northern Thailand) and doesn't like to go on the beach until late afternoon.
2. Fast runner.
1. Papers to grade in San Diego.
As you can glean from this attempt at humor in the face of horrible disaster, the people who died were either on the beach, in a boat or on a smaller, outer island. A man in our hotel we thought was lost is apparently OK. We heard a story about a guy whose baby was lifted right out of a stroller and carried out to sea. I can tell you from my own experience running away from the second wave this morning that the tsunamis move quite fast and furiously.
Dispatch Three: Best Meal Ever
Dec. 26, 2004, 9 p.m.: This afternoon, Tuk and I walked a few hundred yards down the road into South Karon beach and witnessed incredible devastation: skeletons of beach umbrellas, lounge chairs snapped in two, upside-down cars plowed into buildings, overturned phonebooths, smashed shops and bricks and debris of all sorts everywhere. That area is on slightly lower ground than where my hotel is, so it got hit much worse, as I said before.
By the way, earlier, when Tuk and I fled the third wave (which never came) on bicycles, we found an outdoor canteen shack run by a little old lady who refused to flee (all others in the area were long gone) and just kept cooking for whomever passed by on their way to higher ground (mainly, a group of fearless laughing Muslim men and a local woman who sat with us and said she'd thought the earthquake was people in the next room “doing some boom boom”). There, I had a very cold Singha beer and a plate of excellent fried rice. It was the best meal I've ever had.
Next time: Surveying the Aftermath
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