several—roll in from the ocean, across beaches and manicured lawns, sweeping all before them. A jumble of beach umbrellas, rattan lawn chairs, towels, and potted plants are borne by the onrushing water. The water courses through open-air restaurants, flows across hotel lobbies and verandas, and pours in dirty waterfalls down staircases. As riveting and terrible as these images are, they are not the worst. Next we see people running frantically, heads turning, looking back over their shoulders at the churning muddy water that is gaining on them. Then, looking closer, we see someone struggling in the maelstrom, buffeted by the tumultuous seas; we see another man clinging desperately to a palm tree, only to lose his grasp and be sucked from sight by the roiling waters; another, carried toward a building, is eventually rescued. (See Plate 10.) Later, we see more, so many more that our senses are confounded; it does not seem possible, such death and destruction—the swollen corpses; mothers crying over infants; the young, so lifelike in death.
It was the worst natural disaster most of us have ever seen or could imagine seeing. It was the Southeast Asia tsunami of December 26, 2004, a definite 6 on the tsunami intensity scale. (Note: Worst is a relative term. Eight months later, almost to the day, the world recoiled to the vision of another terrible disaster: Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans and the Gulf cities of Louisiana and Mississippi. The cause was different, but the devastation had a terrible familiarity.)
The tsunami was triggered by a massive magnitude 9.0 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake in the Indian Ocean near the northwest end of Sumatra. Scientists believe that more than 600 miles of ocean bottom ruptured and heaved upward as much as 66 feet in a process seismologists call subduction when the Indian Plate, moving northeast, slid under and lifted up the Burma Plate. Gradual movement had been proceeding for years in this area, at the rate of about 2.5 inches per year, causing stress to build at the junction of the two tectonic plates, until finally the submarine rock fractured. When this occurred, the locations of nearby islands and the tip of Sumatra were shifted by the earthquake. An earthquake of this size was bound to cause severe structural damage to buildings within a radius of 120 miles, and within seconds, buildings in Sumatra and adjacent areas started collapsing.