On Dec. 26, 2004, an earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra generated transoceanic waves that impacted two continents and hundreds of thousands of people.
This tsunami generated a spirit of solidarity in the world not seen since Sept. 11, 2001; donations poured in from governments, individuals, and corporations. Americans in particular dug deep, as private donations exceeded the amount the government pledged to the United Nations.
What was it about this tragedy that caused a usually apathetic public to become personally involved with the recovery effort? The Iranian earthquake a year ago and even the hurricanes in Florida this past summer were all natural disasters that dominated the news for weeks.
What made the difference in our minds with respect to the tsunamis? It was certainly the images, the death toll, the survivor stories.
These combined to create the psychological impact it had on us as we watched all the aspects of the disaster come together as the days progressed, and the enormity of what happened began to sink in.
Enormous waves chasing us from behind as we run up the beach are the stuff of our nightmares. We wake up nervous and glance out the window?but there was always that assurance that water normally remains in its place. The beach would remain pristine, and the seas would respect the shorelines.
A teacher in Phuket Thailand commented that ?the earth tremor we felt was big, but we just couldn?t work out what it was. An earthquake was the last thing we could imagine.?
The earth is continually in movement. This tragedy was the effect of its natural aging process and we just happened to see such an event in our lifetime. But the fact that it occurred in an area not statistically calculated to receive such a large tremor made all of us glance worryingly at our coasts.
The world hurried to expand the tsunami warning system; now no place can be excused as highly improbable to the reality of a tsunami.
When we watched those walls of water, heard the screams, held our breath as people were washed back out to sea, it touched a nerve inside us that made us shiver with dread.
The visions we used to shake off as phantoms from our dreams became horrendous reality as we watched the waves ? for real this time ? chase innocent people up the beach.
Mothers were forced to choose among their children; impoverished fathers were left without livelihood or families; tourists lost family members who only a few moments before were enjoying paradise.
The waves appeared in most countries without warning. No earthquake was felt in the outlying countries; no sirens sounded. Unexpectedly, the ocean decided to swallow the beach ? and it was indiscriminate in its destruction.
Rita Davie from Kent, UK, who was vacationing in Olhuveli, reported, ?We had seconds to react; the wave was so powerful. Whizzing past me was bedroom furniture, TVs, fridges. We had to fight for our lives. The experience was terrifying. The whole island was destroyed. The devastation was immense. The fear, people screaming and blood everywhere...?
?As the waters rose at an incredible rate, I half expected to catch sight of Noah?s ark,? said Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post (Dec. 27).
And indeed a fear of floods, waves, and high water dates back to the time of Noah?s ark, when what is essential to human survival became a weapon of mass destruction.
Yet, even with the rainbow?s promise that no flood will ever again destroy the earth, man is still infatuated with the destructive powers of water.
Movies are made that imagine life after the melting polar caps have engulfed land. They show NYC being swallowed by mega-tsunamis and tease our imaginations with what could happen.
But in the end, the lights come back on and we walk away knowing that Hollywood?s doomsday is impossible and not likely to occur.
When the fantastical became reality, we were all impacted by it and were moved to ease the unimaginable suffering of those half a world away.
As time drags on, let us continue to keep those in the affected countries in our prayers, without allowing the passing weeks to numb our sensibilities to the magnitude of death and destruction that occurred.