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Five years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami - are we better prepared and more resilient to disasters?

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UNISDR 2009/24

Geneva - On December 26, 2004, a massive tsunami reared up in the Indian Ocean and spread towards millions of people on the surrounding coasts. For those nearby, in Aceh, Indonesia, the Thai coastal resorts, and the island communities, there was little warning. With no knowledge or preparedness, people faced a terrifying situation as they tried to escape the growing wall of turbulent water, forcing its way across beaches, harbours, and towns. The earthquake that caused the tsunami was a warning to those who felt it, but only a few people recognized this. Across the ocean, in Sri Lanka and India, towns and villages went about their business on a busy sunny morning, unaware that a wave was racing across the sea at the speed of a jet plane and would strike them in a few hours. With little awareness and no warning system, who was to know what was coming?

As news of this unprecedented disaster unfolded, it became clear that many tens of thousands of people had died, and that whole communities had vanished, replaced in minutes by seawater, mud and debris. Over the following days and weeks, the full horror was revealed - 230,000 people dead, and an economic loss estimated at more than 10 billion US dollars. For the developing countries concerned, it was a devastating blow.

The tsunami was the result of a very large undersea earthquake, where the Earth's crust had split like a zipper along an extensive fault line, starting near Sumatra and reaching a thousand kilometres northward into the Bay of Bengal. With some shock, the public learned that geologists and seismologists were well aware of the fault and had warned that massive forces built up over hundreds of years could unleash earthquakes and tsunamis at any time. Some scientists had argued for an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, mirrored on the long-established Pacific Ocean tsunami warning system, but to no avail.

Five years later, Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction says there is better news to report. "The affected countries and communities have largely recovered, and warning systems are now in place, not just for tsunamis, which are relatively rare, but also linked to those for tropical cyclones, storms, and floods."