A couple of days ago there was a tsunami watch for the entire Indian Ocean after an 8.6 magnatude earthquake hit off the coast of Indonesia. We had left Sri Lanka just the day before.
Traveling with small children definitely complicates trip planning. All of a sudden, every destination, especially many of the interesting and historical places that are within a four-hour flight from here, starts to look bad. Not politically stable enough. Not sanitary enough. Not safe enough. Natural disasters weigh heavily on your mind, too. But then you start to feel a bit foolish. Should you really avoid a place because their might be a tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, etc? You’d never be able to go anywhere! Hence, our decision to go to Sri Lanka.
During the Boxing Day tsunami in 1994, 30,000 Sri Lankans died. While we were there, even though 7 1/2 years has passed, you get the feeling that it’s still a fresh memory for many. And there’s definitely a “weathered” look about the place which serves as an eerie reminder. We thought about and discussed the tsunami many times prior to and during our visit. The beginning scene of the movie “Hereafter” kept replaying in my mind. We talked to several of the locals about their experience, and we looked uneasily out into the rough sea and thought, “Whoa, we’d be in trouble if it happened again.” But we took comfort in the idea that surely there was a good warning system in place by now.
When I read that they cut all power and rail service to the area where we were staying after this recent tsunami watch, it dawned on me for the first time that even if there was a good warning system in place – forget it! Trying to evacuate would be nearly impossible! First of all, we weren’t exactly the most mobile bunch. We traveled with another family, and between us we have five kids, ages 1 – 7, plus I’m 7 1/2 months pregnant. The roads in Sri Lanka are crazily chaotic on just an average day. Goats, cows, and bulls share the road with countless tuk tuks, jam-packed buses, bicycles, pedestrians and cars, none of whom maintain any discernible lane discipline. Then I remembered how ridiculously packed Houston’s I-10 became when people tried to evacuate during Hurricane Ike but ended up stranded for hours in their cars, on a perfectly modern highway. No, no one would be leaving the southern coast of Sri Lanka, that’s fairly certain. I guess your best bet would be to try to find a structure that was sound enough and tall enough to escape the floods – not an easy task. Yes, there are hills in the area, but considering that there was a large monkey swinging from the trees right outside of our hotel room, I think it’s safe to say that the dense forest that covers them is not the most hospitable refuge.
I admit that my first thought was selfish when I heard about the power cut and advice to head to higher ground in Galle: “Thank god we didn’t have a longer trip booked.” Being stuck in the oppressive humidity with no prospect of relief (it was 86F/30C, but with humidity, heat index was 100F/38C), with the worry of an approaching tsunami, and trying to “evacuate” with our group, would have been nothing short of hell. We were so lucky to have left, and it was just in the nick of time! Once I got past that thought, I immediately remembered all the other tourists and locals we had met that were still there, and our tuk tuk driver, Chaumin. We met his wife and children, and now this was their reality with memories of the last tsunami weighing on them.
I am so, so grateful and relieved that the tsunami didn’t materialize. Now that I have seen it with my own eyes, it’s much easier to imagine how susceptible a place like Sri Lanka is to total devastation. And the people are so gracious and hospitable – visiting there definitely puts a human face on the tragedy of the first tsunami. I really hope that this incident provided good practice to improve evacuation plans and safety measures.