Tsunami Waves Kill Over 20,900 in Asia

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Rescuers piled up bodies along southern Asian coastlines devastated by tidal waves that smashed into nine countries, obliterating seaside towns and killing more than 20,900 people. Hundreds of children were buried in mass graves in India, and morgues and hospitals struggled to cope with the catastrophe.

The death toll mounted sharply Monday, a day after the 9.0-magnitude quake struck deep beneath the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia. It was the most powerful quake in four decades.

The waves sped away from the epicenter at over 500 mph before crashing into the region's shorelines, sweeping people and fishing villages out to sea. Millions were displaced from their homes and thousands were missing.

Officials said the death toll would continue to rise, and the International Red Cross said it was concerned about waterborne diseases.

Sri Lanka said just over 10,000 people were killed along its coastlines, and Tamil rebels said 2,000 people died in its territory, bringing that country's toll to more than 12,000.

Indonesia reported about 5,000 deaths and India 3,000. Thailand — a Western tourist hotspot — said hundreds were dead and thousands missing. Deaths were also reported in Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh and even in Somalia, 3,000 miles away in Africa.

On the remote Car Nicobar island south of India, Police Chief S.B. Deol told New Delhi Television he had reports that another 3,000 people may have died. If confirmed, that would raise India's death toll to 6,000 and the overall number to 23,900.

In Bandah Aceh, Indonesia, 150 miles from the quake's epicenter, dozens of bloated bodies littered the streets as soldiers and desperate relatives searched for survivors Monday. Some 500 bodies collected by emergency workers lay under plastic tents, rotting in the tropical heat.

"We have ordered 15,000 troops into the field to search for survivors," said military spokesman Edy Sulistiadi. "They are mostly retrieving corpses."

Refugees in nearby Lhokseumawe, many of whom had spent the night sleeping outside on open ground, complained that little or no aid had reached them. The city's hospital said it was running out of medicine.

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu was also hit hard, with thousands of deaths reported. Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa called the scene "an extraordinary calamity of such colossal proportions that the damage has been unprecedented."

Nearby beaches resembled open-air mortuaries as fishermen's bodies washed ashore, and retreating waters left behind others killed inland. In Cuddalore, red-eyed parents held a mass burial for more than 150 children. About half of the nearly 400 who perished in the town were youngsters, leaving townspeople in stunned bereavement.

The tsunamis came without warning. Witnesses said sea waters at first retreated far out into the ocean, only to return at a vicious pace. Some regions reported a crashing wall of water 20 feet high.

"The water went back, back, back, so far away, and everyone wondered what it was — a full moon or what? Then we saw the wave come, and we ran," said Katri Seppanen, who was in Thailand, on Phuket island's popular Patong beach.

Sri Lanka and Indonesia had at least a million people each driven from their homes. Warships in Thailand steamed to remote tropical island resorts to search for survivors as air force helicopters in Sri Lanka and India rushed food and medicine to stricken areas.

In Indonesia, villagers near northern Lhokseumawe picked through the debris of their ruined houses amid the smell of decomposing bodies.

One man, Rajali, said his wife and two children were killed and that he couldn't find dry ground to bury them. Islamic tradition demands that the deceased be buried as soon as possible.

"What shall I do?" said the 55-year-old, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. "I don't know where to bury my wife and children."

Dozens of bodies still clad in swimming trunks lined beaches in Thailand. Among the dead was the Thai-American grandson of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, officials said. Poom Jensen, 21, was reportedly jet skiing when the tidal wave struck.

In Sri Lanka — an island nation some 1,000 miles west of the epicenter — about 25,000 troops were deployed to crack down on sporadic, small-scale looting and to help in rescue efforts. About 200 inmates took advantage of the chaos, escaping from a prison in coastal Matara.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake's magnitude was 9.0 — the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964 and the fourth-largest in a century. The quake was more than 6 miles deep and was followed by a half-dozen powerful aftershocks. A 620-mile section of a geological plate shifted, triggering the sudden displacement of water.

Countries around the world were touched. Italy reported 11 of citizens had died; Norway 10; Britain four; the United States and Denmark three each; France, Sweden and Belgium two each; and New Zealand one.

Those numbers would likely rise. Sri Lanka said 72 foreign tourists were killed there. In Thailand, 35 of the dead were identified as foreigners.

President Bush expressed his condolences over the "terrible loss of life and suffering." From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II led appeals for aid for victims, and the 25-nation European Unionpromised to quickly deliver $4 million.

Aid agencies and governments around the world began pouring relief supplies into the region on Monday. Japan, China and Russia were among the countries sending teams of experts.

Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam, warned that without swift action, more people could die. "The flood waters will have contaminated drinking water and food will be scarce," she said.

In Thailand, Gen. Chaisit Shinawatra, the army chief, said the United States has offered to send troops stationed in Japan's Okinawa island to assist. Thailand was considering the offer.

Tsunamis as large as Sunday's happen only a few times a century. A tsunami is a series of traveling ocean waves generated by geological disturbances near the ocean floor. With nothing to stop them, the waves can race across the ocean like the crack of a bullwhip, gaining momentum over thousands of miles.

An international tsunami warning system was started in 1965, after the Alaska quake, designed to advise coastal communities of a potentially killer wave.

Member states include all the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America. But because tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, India and Sri Lanka are not part of the system. Scientists said the death toll would have been reduced if they had been.

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    Read below for Tsunami FAQ's, Safety Tips, and Did You Know Facts

    Tsunamis: Frequently Asked Questions

    Q: What Is a Tsunami?
    A: A tsunami (pronounced “soo-nah-mee”) is a series of waves of extremely long wave length and long period generated in a body of water by an impulsive disturbance that vertically displaces the water. The term tsunami was adopted for general use in 1963 by an international scientific conference. Tsunami is a Japanese word represented by two characters: "tsu" and "nami." The character "tsu" means harbor, and the character "nami" means wave. In the past, tsunamis were often referred to as "tidal waves." The term "tidal wave" is a misnomer. Tides are the result of gravitational influences of the moon, sun, and planets. Tsunamis are not caused by the tides and are unrelated to the tides; although a tsunami striking a coastal area is influenced by the tide level at the time of impact.

    Q: What Causes a Tsunami?
    A: There are many causes of tsunamis but the most prevalent is earthquakes. In addition, landslides, volcanic eruptions, explosions, and even the impact of cosmic bodies, such as meteorites, can generate tsunamis.

    Q: How Do Earthquakes Generate Tsunamis?
    A: Tsunamis can be generated when the sea floor abruptly shifts and vertically displaces the overlying water from its equilibrium position. Waves are formed as the displaced water mass attempts to regain its equilibrium. The main factor which determines the initial size of a tsunami is the amount of vertical sea floor deformation. Not all earthquakes generate tsunamis. To generate tsunamis, earthquakes must occur underneath or near the ocean, be large and create movements in the sea floor. All oceanic regions of the world can experience tsunamis, but in the Pacific Ocean there is a much more frequent occurrence of large, destructive tsunamis because of the many large earthquakes along the margins of the Pacific Ocean.

    Q: How Do Landslides, Volcanic Eruptions, and Cosmic Collisions Generate Tsunamis?
    A: Any disturbance that displaces a large water mass from its equilibrium position can generate a tsunami. Generally tsunamis caused by landslides or volcanic eruptions dissipate more quickly than Pacific-wide tsunamis caused by some earthquakes and rarely affect coastlines distant from the source.

    Q: How Do Tsunamis Differ From Other Water Waves?
    A: Tsunami waves are shallow-water waves with long periods and wave lengths. (A wave is classified a shallow-water wave when the ratio between the water depth and its wavelength gets very small. The speed of a shallow-water wave is equal to the square root of the product of the acceleration of gravity (32ft/sec/sec or 980cm/sec/sec) and the depth of the water.) Shallow water waves are different from wind-generated waves (the waves many of us have observed on the beach). Wind-generated waves usually have period (time between two succesional waves) of five to twenty seconds and a wavelength (distance between two successional waves) of about 50 to 600 feet (15 to 200 meters) A tsunami can have a period in the range of 10 minutes to 1 hour and a wavelength in excess of 700 km (430 miles).

    Q: What Happens to a Tsunami as it Approaches the Shore?
    A: "As the tsunami wave reaches the shallower water above a continental shelf, friction with the shelf slows the front of the wave. As the tsunami approaches shore, the trailing waves pile onto the waves in front of them, like a rug crumpled against a wall creating a wave that may rise up to 30 feet before hitting the shore. Although greatly slowed, a tsunami still bursts onto land at freeway speeds, with enough momentum to flatten buildings and trees and to carry ships miles inland." (From: Waves of Destruction by Tim Folger, Discover Magazine, May 1994, pp. 69-70)

    Q: What Are the Impacts of a Tsunami?
    A: Tsunamis can savagely attack coastlines, causing devastating property damage and loss of life.

    Q: Are Tsunamis All the Same?
    A: No. U.S. coastal communities are threatened by tsunamis that are generated by both local earthquakes and distant earthquakes. Local tsunamis give residents only a few minutes to seek safety. Tsunamis of distant origins give residents more time to evacuate threatened coastal areas but increase the need for timely and accurate assessment of the tsunami hazard to avoid costly false alarms. Thus, U.S. residents in Alaska can experience a local earthquake and tsunami while residents of Hawaii and the west coast may experience this disaster as a distant tsunami. Similarly, west coast residents can experience a local tsunami that may also have an impact on the distant states of Alaska and Hawaii. Of the two, local tsunamis are more devastating.

    Q: Can Tsunamis Be Predicted?
    A: Since science cannot predict when earthquakes will occur, they cannot determine exactly when a tsunami will be generated. But with the aid of historical records of tsunamis and numerical models, scientists can get an idea where tsunamis are most likely to be generated.

    Tsunami Safety Tips

    • A strong earthquake felt in a low-lying coastal area is a natural warning of possible, immediate danger. Keep calm and quickly move to higher ground away from the coast.
    • All large earthquakes do not cause tsunamis, but many do. If the quake is located near or directly under the ocean, the probability of a tsunami increases. When you hear that an earthquake has occurred in the ocean or coastline regions, prepare for a tsunami emergency.
    • Tsunamis can occur at any time, day or night. They can travel up rivers and streams that lead to the ocean.
    • A tsunami is not a single wave, but a series of waves. Stay out of danger until an "ALL CLEAR" is issued by a competent authority. Approaching tsunamis are sometimes heralded by noticeable rise or fall of coastal waters. This is nature's tsunami warning and should be heeded.
    • Approaching large tsunamis are usually accompanied by a loud roar that sounds like a train or aircraft. If a tsunami arrives at night when you can not see the ocean, this is also nature's tsunami warning and should be heeded.
    • A small tsunami at one beach can be a giant a few miles away. Do not let modest size of one make you lose respect for all.
    • Sooner or later, tsunamis visit every coastline in the Pacific. All tsunamis - like hurricanes - are potentially dangerous even though they may not damage every coastline they strike.
    • Never go down to the beach to watch for a tsunami! WHEN YOU CAN SEE THE WAVE YOU ARE TOO CLOSE TO ESCAPE. Tsunamis can move faster than a person can run!
    • During a tsunami emergency, your local emergency management office, police, fire and other emergency organizations will try to save your life. Give them your fullest cooperation.
    • Homes and other buildings located in low lying coastal areas are not safe. Do NOT stay in such buildings if there is a tsunami warning.
    • The upper floors of high, multi-story, reinforced concrete hotels can provide refuge if there is no time to quickly move inland or to higher ground.
    • If you are on a boat or ship and there is time, move your vessel to deeper water (at least 100 fathoms). If it is the case that there is concurrent severe weather, it may may safer to leave the boat at the pier and physically move to higher ground.
    • Damaging wave activity and unpredictable currents can effect harbor conditions for a period of time after the tsunami's initial impact. Be sure conditions are safe before you return your boat or ship to the harbor.
    • Stay tuned to your local radio, marine radio, NOAA Weather Radio, or television stations during a tsunami emergency - bulletins issued through your local emergency management office and National Weather Service offices can save your life.

    Did You Know?

    • In 1964, an Alaskan earthquake generated a tsunami with waves between 10 and 20 feet high along parts of the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts. This tsunami caused more than $84 million in damage in Alaska and a total of 123 fatalities.
    • Although tsunamis are rare along the Atlantic coastline, a severe earthquake on November 18, 1929, in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland generated a tsunami that caused considerable damage and loss of life at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.
    • In 1946, a tsunami with waves of 20 to 32 feet crashed into Hilo, Hawaii, flooding the downtown area and killing 159 people.
    • The Tsunami Warning Centers in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Palmer, Alaska, monitor disturbances that trigger tsunamis. When a tsunami is recorded, it is tracked and a tsunami warning is issued to the threatened area.
    • Most deaths during a tsunami are a result of drowning. Associated risks include flooding, polluted water supplies, and damaged gas lines.
    • Since 1945, more people have been killed as a result of tsunamis than as a direct result of an earthquake’s ground-shaking.

    Source: http://www.noaa.gov (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site) contributed to this report.