The Boxing Day Tsunami: Unveiling Tragedy and Art – JW, HB, CD, JL, AT, NR, QC

The Boxing Day tsunami, known for its mass destruction and death toll, began off the west coast of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Deep below the ocean exists oceanic plates that are constantly shifting and crashing into each other. The main plates involved in this disaster are the India plate and the Burma microplate, which is part of the Sunda plate. When the India plate subducted underneath the Burma plate, a 900 mile fault line was created due to the convergence and subduction of these plates. This line, 31 miles below the ocean floor, released as much energy as several thousand atomic bombs, or in this case a 9.1 M earthquake. For reference, typical earthquakes, like a 4M or 5M can take as little as 1 second to release stored energy. The earthquake that created this tsunami lasted 10 minutes. This is where the epicenter of the earthquake occurs and thus the larger story of the devastating tsunami. 

The beginning, middle and end for this tsunami is equally marked with tragedy and loss. The tsunami began by hitting the city of Banda Aceh, which is in northern Sumatra. This city was closest to the epicenter of the earthquake and in a matter of minutes, a 100 foot wave killed over 100,000 people. Virtually no one who was caught in the wave survived.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop at Banda Aceh. Thailand was the next stop for this destructive force of nature. The tsunami hit both Phang Nga and Phuket (coastal provinces) killing nearly 5,400. Of this number, 2,000 were foreign tourists. The next stop was the city of Chennai, located on the southeastern coast of India. Chennai lost more than 10,000 people, with a majority of casualties being women and children since the men were out fishing. The final destination was Sri lanka where more than 30,000 people were swept away and killed by this destructive and powerful wave. The tsunami consequentially “left a gendered landscape of disaster in its wake.” Boxing Day was a day of offering and many women and children went to leave food and flowers by the seaside, and the wave just came in unexpectedly. Women were less likely to know how to swim or climb a tree, resulting in a mass amount of death. Paintings recapturing the incidents recounted that “flowing dresses hindered rapid flight” of women. 

This natural disaster was so powerful that people swimming in South Africa experienced large rogue waves. To put this into perspective, South Africa was 5,000 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake and tsunami. This disaster lasted a total of seven hours and anywhere that the Boxing Day tsunami went, death and destruction followed. Communities from surrounding countries suffered huge losses to their infrastructure as a result of this devastating natural disaster. National roads, access roads, and coastal highways were torn out of the ground, leaving no place for people to travel on. Basic necessities such as hospitals were ripped up, as well as nearby educational centers including schools and colleges.  This especially affected the poor and lower income tiers. Out of the people’s homes or living spaces affected by this tragedy, 75% of them were in the lower income region. It is extremely important to note the disproportionate cost seismic events pose to underprivileged communities. The disparities in infrastructure often create a more dangerous environment in the onset of a natural disaster. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress describes the conditions present in these communities that can exacerbate the tragedy because, “…Building codes are often not adopted or enforced. Low-income communities often lack transportation and communication infrastructure to facilitate an adequate disaster response. Health systems in low income countries are often under-resourced even prior to a disaster, and are quickly stretched beyond capacity in the face of increased injuries and illness.”

These lower income areas were not the only places that were affected. Over 10 countries were affected and this is because of the earthquake paired with the tsunami. Roughly 227,889 people were killed and/or presumed dead in total, including tourists and locals. Furthermore, 1.7 million people were displaced, leaving 500,000 of those homeless. The damage done to various coastal communities added up to roughly $13 billion. Roughly, $6 billion of the damages were in Indonesia, leaving it ruined and desolate, which is a common theme amongst places that experienced this tsunami. 

Not only were several countries affected by the tsunami, but survivors experienced effects as well. People who survived the tsunami actually had thickened waists due to scar tissue 13 years after the tsunami as a result of wading in fast-moving water. These survivors were also more at risk of catching diseases because of increased inflammation levels and had difficulty regulating glucose levels. Not only have these survivors lost homes, cultures, and families, but they have lost their health too. The tsunami has virtually taken everything from them. Adults were not the only ones to experience health effects following the aftermath of the tsunami. Children who were in utero at the time of the tsunami experienced major health and growth effects as a consequence. They ended up being shorter than their predicted average height at the age of three years old . While these children were able to eventually catch up to the height of those children who weren’t affected, scientists can’t rule out potential health effects from rapid growth.  The tsunami was so powerful it was able to disrupt human biology as well as the land in its path of destruction. 

Despite all the wreckage that occurred because of the tsunami, art was discovered in the wake of all the destruction. The power of the waves were able to uncover pieces of art from lost history, and the devastation of the tsunami also inspired others to create memorable art from the events. The waves shifted tons of sand and uncovered lost relics of a seventh-century civilization. South of Chennai, the ancient city held sculptures that could help aid scholars into understanding this civilization. “The sculptures include an elaborately carved lion, a half-completed elephant and a stallion in flight.” Members of the team that uncovered the statues explain that lions, elephants, and peacocks were once used to decorate walls during the Pallava period. Furthermore, art that was inspired by the tsunami sparked conversation amongst professors 8 years later. Momi Chitrakar is the creator of a 7-foot-tall scroll that depicts a painting of the tsunami and just how many lives it took. Along with the painting, Momi Chitrakar performed a sorrowful song explaining how much pain and loss the tsunami caused. “Mothers lost their children//Husbands lost their wives//What pain, merciful (God), what pain!//Why did you destroy, tell me (God), Sri Lanka and Andaman?//The cursed tsunami snatched away lives.” The professors who encountered this piece of art and performance inevitably bought the painting and brought it back to their campus for further discussion in academic settings. This ensured that this tragedy wouldn’t go unnoticed or unsupported. 

 In comparison to N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy, the sculptures uncovered by the tsunami show resemblance to “dead-civs”, which are remains of a dead civilization. This showcases how much worldbuilding Jemisin put into the trilogy, but the sculptures unveiled could also be a reference image for people trying to imagine the dead-civs discussed in the novels. In Jemisin’s novels obelisks operate as sculptures to show the remains of past civilizations. In both The Broken Earth trilogy and our real world, remnants of civilizations can be used to learn more about the past. Ruins where obelisks had previously been built resurface multiple times throughout the series, posing questions about the obelisks and their origin, and ultimately answering these questions (in time) as well. These civilizations had gone through many natural disasters, resulting in death and mass destruction that turned them into “dead-civs”.  The cities affected by the Boxing Day tsunami may not have become a “dead-civ” but the continuation of destruction in these areas will leave a lasting mark. Perhaps people will relocate, leaving remains of their cultures and lives destroyed by the earth for others to find. 

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