I had never heard of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami until now, but in my defense I was only four years old when the events transformed the tropics of the eastern hemisphere.
The morning of December 26, 2004 witnessed an approximate 9.3-magnitude earthquake which struck Indonesia first then rippled its impact unto thirteen other countries within the next seven hours. The shifts between the Indian and Burma plates devastated Asia, killing an estimated 230,000 people.
It seemed Mother Nature had allotted the second hour to Thailand, specifically the tied beaches of Khao Lak, a tourist attraction which on this unfortunate day attracted the Swedish family of Victor Israelsson. Israelsson was the middle child of his kin and only twelve years old when he became its lone survivor. His parents, older brother, and younger sister were killed by one of the most disastrous waves in history shown below.
Footage of the first wave begins soon after the 2-minute mark.
The video as well as Israelsson’s own account reveal (1) how the tsunami had carried itself to the shore physically and (2) how the tourists were victims of their own obliviousness and poor communication. Not to say that they were in control of the disaster, but it is clear that information and emergency actions regarding tsunamis needed to be established, and what happened in Khao Lak only helped to expose this subject of matter. The video shows how villagers struggled getting tourists to run, and Israelsson himself recalled how people along the beach were fascinated by the behavior of the water rather than alarmed when they saw it recede enough for the reef and its fish to be unveiled or when a “cloud-like wall began to close in.”
This tragedy should only evoke feelings of sympathy as opposed to those of empathy given that it was a unique and catastrophic day, yet I still feel like I am able to position myself as Israelsson on a figurative level.
Life is really hard. I spend a lot of it being depressed… almost like there’s an ocean of bad things inside of me that’s always heavy and constantly being pushed and pulled. Less often than usual there will be a slot of time where I feel okay. That’s when the water recedes… and it will recede a lot when I can say I feel good for a week straight. I’ll begin to think like the tourists, caught up in fascination at the ocean shrinking itself. But also like those tourists I’ll be swept in a great, big wave almost immediately and half of the time without expecting it on my part. It’s like a recurring tsunami and sometimes I’ll see it on the horizon. Yet my decision to sit in the sand or run towards the hills won’t change whether or not it gets me because it always does.
But Israelsson was stuck in the water, too, and he said that “bricks, cars, and everything else the wave took with it struck him.” When he was rescued, he found a surviving Swedish family who took him in on their flight back home. He spent the following days and nights motionless in bed until he pushed himself to go back to school, to see his friends, to continue his daily life in the exact same environment he grew up in prior to the event as to maintain any sense of comfort. In the interview where he is now twenty-three, Israelsson says:
“I never compare sorrows. I never regret anything I didn’t have control over. I’m not strong. I’m just living. It’s the only option I have… I can’t lay on the floor and have people feel sorry for me. I would never feel sorry for myself.”
I feel like there is something I can personally take from his statement. Our situations may be completely different and I do not mean to dramatize my own, but I seek to apply his words to my own mindset. Our struggles and misfortunes are not something to overcome as typically thought. They are something to live with and something to grow from; the solution is to find ways of our own to do that which will keep it all from consuming us.
As for the devastation of the village: I had never heard of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami until now. Khao Lak was able to restore itself as an idyllic region to live and visit. It has established tsunami shelters, exit routes, and an alarm system that provides a two-hour warning of any oceanic threat. The wave was unfortunate, but globally it was also taken as a lesson. In time I can parallel that recovery with Israelsson’s outlook.