From  The Impossible , starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and set in Khao Lak, Thailand, the scene of this story.

From The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and set in Khao Lak, Thailand, the scene of this story.

THE SURVIVOR

Dwayne Meadows thought he still had time to escape. He planned to throw his backpack through the louvered windows of his vacation bungalow, leap out the back, and run up the nearby hill.

Using the few surviving videos, he later calculated that he’d had thirty seconds from the time he heard screams on the beach until the wave smashed through his sliding glass door. He turned to see the harbor emptying, a thick white line of foam on the horizon roaring towards him, and boats bobbing wildly in Khao Lak Bay. Meadows was one of the few people that day who immediately recognized the signs of a tsunami.

Meadows, a marine biologist and seasoned diver, had spent Christmas Day 2004 in the world-renowned Similan Islands Marine National Park in southwest Thailand. When he returned to the coastal village of Khao Lak that evening, he’d met a friendly German tourist named Caroline and accompanied her to a local dive shop. Afterward, they shared drinks and an impromptu Christmas dinner, but he never thought to ask her last name. Both scientists, they chatted about diving, and the research lab where she worked, and her dog—little details that he later tried to reconstruct when she was counted among the missing.  

The two had planned a snorkeling trip for the next morning to explore the local fan coral, whose delicate orange branches can grow to a diameter of over six feet. The day dawned clear and blue. After breakfast, Meadows returned to his bungalow and had just started collecting his snorkeling gear when screams shattered the morning air.

Seconds later, the wave blew through the door. When it blasted out one of the bungalow walls, Meadows saw his chance to escape, and dove through the hole into the raging black water. The wave then took control, spinning and somersaulting his body, nearly ripping his arms and legs from their sockets. Heavy debris battered him mercilessly. After a long minute underwater, Meadows stopped spinning long enough to start swimming. He headed desperately toward what he thought was the surface, but failed to find it in the dark water. Running out of air and strength, he panicked, burning more oxygen. At that point, Meadows felt sure he would die and, in his mind, began his farewells to loved ones.

Instead, he abruptly popped above the surface. Gulping air, Meadows breathed so deeply he gagged. He spun around, looking for a familiar landmark to get his bearings. A foam spaghetti noodle from a swimming pool sped by and he grabbed it, tumbling ahead as the current lunged forward like a white-water river rapid. Trained as a lifeguard, Meadows knew not to struggle; he let the current carry him along. 

The force of the water hurtled him at an acute angle north, away from the resort and toward a forest of rubber and coconut palm trees. Meadows fought to protect his face from the sharp fronds in treetops he was passing, which were fully 40 feet above the ground. But he was repeatedly hit by branches of entire trees ripped loose by the current, and gashed by building debris with exposed nails. Worse, he suddenly slammed hard into a tree trunk, spraining his left hip, knee, and ankle, and losing the styrofoam noodle.

The wave started to slow, and Meadows spotted another large piece of plastic floating ahead of him—the lower half of a mannequin from one of Khao Lak’s tailors. He threw his arms around it, desperate to stay afloat. As he began to swim again, he scouted for landmarks and was astonished when he recognized the rocks on the shore. The wave had somehow swept him a quarter-mile back out to sea, into the deeper waters of the bay. Knowing he had to beat the next wave, Meadows swam painfully back toward the beach, gripping the mannequin as he dodged chunks of debris. Cars and even whole buildings passed by. On one, he encountered a Thai woman clutching a section of roof, crying that she couldn’t swim. He held out the mannequin, urging her to grab it. With time running out before the next wave, Meadows tugged her arm and pleaded with her to let him help her to shore. But she was in shock and hysterical, and refused. Finally, he gave up to save himself. This would become his most painful memory of the tragedy.

Swimming swiftly toward the rocks on shore, Meadows noticed that whole sections of mussels had been ripped from the stone. Seeing a colony still stuck to the rock four feet above the water line, his heart sank. Those mussels, he knew, could only grow where waves and tides washed over them. The tsunami must have vacuumed water from the beach a second time and was now regrouping to surge back again. Worn out, in severe pain, and saddened by his inability to help the Thai woman, Meadows passed several floating bodies and grimly calculated his poor odds for surviving the soon-to-come second wave.

Meadows reached the shore and hobbled onto the beach, where he encountered four European women, ragged and injured, but alive. Finding other survivors helped snap him out of his despair, and together they helped each other to higher ground. Scrambling up the hill together, they finally had a bit of luck. The second wave, when it came, had a lower run up than the first. Dazed and in shock, they turned to watch the deadly water surge to within a dozen feet, and kept walking.

 

THE ANDAMAN EARTHQUAKE and the resulting tsunami that hit Meadow's bungalow in 2004, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeast coast of Japan in March 2011, were both caused by “subduction” of a pair of tectonic plates deep underwater. In a subduction quake, pressure builds up over centuries as the lower plate pushes under the edge of the top plate and downward into the earth’s mantle. As it moves, the lower plate compresses the leading edge of the plate above. When the pressure becomes too great, the upper plate snaps toward the surface. In 2004 and 2011, the ensuing earthquakes, estimated at magnitudes of 9.1 (Andaman) and 9.0 (Tohoku), unleashed an unimaginable amount of energy, equivalent to over 500 million times the energy of the Hiroshima atom bomb. The subsequent tsunami waves spanned the entire length of the fault—900 miles long and nearly 20 miles deep in the Andaman quake. When it ruptured, millions of gallons of water were thrust upward, unleashing giant waves roughly the length of California.

Tsunami waves behave differently from wind waves, in which the energy moves through the water, near the surface, rather than moving the water itself. A wind wave works like a shaken rug—the rug stays in your hands and the ripples move across it.[1] A tsunami actually moves the water. In a tsunami, the forward motion of the water extends the full height of the displaced water, just as when you tilt water out of a bucket, and the spill shoves everything in front of it, top and bottom. You cannot dive below a tsunami wave to escape, as surfers do with wind waves. And it does not break at the shore. A tsunami wave surges past the shore. 

Compared to even the large ocean swells that surfers love, large tsunami waves have exponentially longer wavelengths, around 120 miles as opposed to 300 feet for swells in deep water. As a rule of thumb, the longer the wavelength, the faster a wave travels. In deep water, where there is no bottom friction to slow the wave, a tsunami can travel 600 miles per hour. The height, or amplitude, of the wave is usually small, a foot or less, and aboard a ship in mid-ocean, the passing wave is often barely noticeable on the surface. But when it arrives on shore that tremendous forward motion is pushed up and onto the land, unleashing destruction.

Once they arrive near to shore, tsunami waves share certain characteristics with ordinary ocean wind waves. Their height or amplitude when they hit land is largely a function of the energy in the wave, as well as the contours of the sea floor near the shore. As the tsunami wave approaches shore, the shallower bottom slows the forward motion of the wave while increasing its height.

Undersea ridges and canyons reshape the waves that encounter them. The underwater ridge perpendicular to the shore at Crescent City, California, is invisible save for a few patches of dark rock just above the water line off shore, but by focusing the incoming waves’ energy, it occasionally turns this sleepy town into a tsunami trap.  After miles of climbing Humboldt’s twisting coastal road, which periodically drops onto expanses of reed and egret-filled estuaries, the road into Crescent City, the last town south of the Oregon on the coast, finally descends to a beach plain that is flat as a race track, with a few casinos and smorgasbords that give it more the feel of a Nevada border town. Between the forested rocky point on the south end of town and the harbor of fishing boats to the north lies an exceptionally long, shallow, and wide stretch of beach where residents love to walk their dogs, occasionally yelling at them not to harass the sea lions. If there were no underwater ridge off the shore, just this flat bottomed beach, a big wave would land evenly across its entire width. Instead the ridge bends the wave, and that bending, called refraction, focuses the wave’s energy. When the focused energy of a 600 mph tsunami hits the long stretch of shallow beach, it leaps up and over everything in its way, which it did most spectacularly in 1964, when a wave generated by an earthquake in Alaska leveled the town. Vulnerable to its invisible geology, Crescent City was heavily damaged a second time in 2011 when the Tohoku tsunami crossed the Pacific, upending its harbor and killing a man walking on the beach.

A tsunami arriving at the end a deepwater canyon, on the other hand, is likely to have a smaller wave height, since the wave energy will have bent and focused on the adjoining ridges, away from the canyon. These differences in the underwater topography explain why the Andaman tsunami completely destroyed some communities and left others relatively unharmed. Directly off the coast of Oluvil, Sri Lanka, there is a deep canyon, and consequently only two people died there. Eight miles to the north, in Kalmunai, an underwater ridge focused the wave energy toward the shore, killing 8,500 townspeople. Thailand’s Khao Lak Bay, where Dwayne Meadows rented his bungalow, has a very shallow, sandy slope. The tsunami waves in 2004 had nowhere to go but up, with plenty of time and distance do so. There were no trees, offshore islands, or other barriers to slow tsunami and protect the coastline. The town’s popular resorts were built right next to the beach, and by law could be no higher than the local coconut palms, unlike the high-rise hotels further south in Phuket. These factors combined to make Khao Lak a killing field. The tsunami death toll there was estimated to be over 4,500, more than half of the 8,150 deaths in Thailand as a whole.

Despite similarities, there are also striking differences between the 2011 and 2004 tsunamis. The Japanese nuclear accident added a poisonous insult to what was already the worst catastrophe in the nation’s history, and blurred the boundary between the natural disaster and its man-made sequel. But the death toll from the Tohoku tsunami, although horrific, was only a fraction of the more than 275,000 who died in the Andaman event. Incredibly, in the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean where most of the damage occurred, there were no sea walls, no warning systems of any kind, and little public education on the tsunami danger. These warnings might have saved many who died that day, including the victims in Khao Lak.

Japan’s superior warning systems and public education on tsunamis grow from a long history of tsunamis there. Technological advances in warning systems—most of them in the past fifty years— also played a significant role. The history of these systems starts a century and a half ago, in 1851, when Joseph Saxton invented the automated tidal gauge, the first instrument to measure a distant seismic event. Until that time, harbormasters measured tides by sending an assistant to the dock every hour to plunge a pole painted with depth markings into the water. Saxton’s invention elegantly automated the process. His device consisted of a pole that rose and fell with the tide inside a cylinder secured to the dock. Saxton connected the top of the pole to a writing instrument that also fluctuated with the tide, recording hourly changes on a paper cylinder that rotated regularly according to a clock. The tide gauge was first deployed in 1854 in San Francisco and San Diego, and on December 23 of that year, both gauges logged an unusual wave pattern. American officials, at first confused by the gauge’s squiggles, were later amazed to discover they represented a sizable earthquake and tsunami across the Pacific, in Japan.

Only a few hours earlier, in the southern Japanese village of Hiro, a village leader named Gyoro Hamaguchi had looked out to sea from his hillside home with alarm, recognizing many of the same signs that Dwayne Meadows saw precisely 150 years later. As a child, Hamaguchi had heard stories from his grandfather of the Hoei earthquake and tsunami of 1707—the largest in Japan until 2011—and how it drained the bay before the fatal wave returned. The Hoei disaster destroyed 29,000 houses and killed 5,000 people. Geologists believe it may also have triggered, a month and a half later, an eruption of Mount Fuji that spread volcanic ash as far as modern-day Tokyo, over sixty miles away. 

Hamaguchi’s large farmhouse sat on a plateau overlooking the village, which surrounded a bay. At the top of the hill behind him was a Buddhist temple with a large bronze bell. Below, the citizens of Hiro were preparing a festival to celebrate the rice harvest, hanging colored banners from roofs and paper lanterns from bamboo poles. Unseen, just beyond this small bay, the Philippine Sea Plate thrusts under the Eurasian Plate in a geological formation called the Nankaido Trough where, at nine that morning, an earthquake of 8.4 magnitude had struck, the first of what came to be known as the Ansei Great Earthquakes. Years later, a writer for The Atlantic named Lafcadio Hearn described the scene that followed. “Hamaguchi, who had felt hundreds of shocks in his time, thought it was queer—a long, slow, spongy motion,” Hearn recounted. “He rose to his feet, and looked at the sea. It had darkened quite suddenly, and it was acting strangely. It seemed to be moving against the wind. It was running away from the land.” 

Tsunamis are known for emptying a bay, harbor, or river mouth before the big wave slingshots back. When the upper tectonic plate snaps up, the enormous wave that forms at the top actually splits in two, with the crest of the wave moving away from the nearest coast, and the trough moving toward that coast. In the Andaman quake, the crest headed west toward India and the trough east toward Indonesia. When the trough of the wave arrives first to a coast, the wave sucks the water backwards off the shore. As anyone who has frolicked in surf has experienced, right after a sizable wave breaks the water draws back. The trough of the wave pulls the surf back toward the ocean before surging forward with the next crest. Due to their very long wavelengths, tsunami waves draw back enormous quantities of water when the trough arrives first. In Indonesia and Thailand in 2004, the tsunami drained the bays and harbors, often exposing beautiful coral reefs and flopping fish. Not knowing any better, many adults and their children ran out to see them.

In Hiro, Hamaguchi knew better. He was horrified to watch his villagers run to get a better look at the strange spectacle near the shore. There were precious minutes to alert them to what was coming—no time to run to the village and no time to climb to the bell up the hill. Instead, he called to his grandson nearby to light a taimatsu, a pine torch. Hearn describes what happened next:

Hamaguchi “hurried with [the torch] to the fields, where hundreds of rice stacks, representing most of his invested capital, stood waiting for transportation. Approaching those nearest the verge of the slope, he applied the torch to them—hurrying from one to the other.” The sun-dried bundles burst into flames and, fanned by the wind, the fire spread quickly. The boy thought his grandfather had lost his mind and he was terrified. But as hoped, the shocked villagers ran up the hill to try to save the crop. All of them made it up the hill in time to turn around for the shocking sight as the first in a series of monster waves leveled their homes, shops, and even the rice terraces.

Hamaguchi devoted himself in the years following to restoring Hirogawa, as it is now called, and to building an earthen sea wall and forest to protect against tsunamis. Nearly a century later, in 1946, it did protect the town when the 8.1 magnitude Nankaido earthquake, also in the Nankai Trough, generated a tsunami. A museum honoring Hamaguchi, who died in 1885, is now a tourist destination in Hirogawa, and Japanese school children are still taught the story of the burning rice sheaths.

In Khao Lak, there was one tsunami warning system that became the stuff of legend, although it saved only a few lives. Eight Khao Lak elephants first began crying that morning right around the time the earthquake struck, and an hour later, they again became agitated and took off for the hills with tourists on their backs. Nearby, two more elephants screamed and broke their chains, running for the hills with the four Japanese tourists who had just climbed aboard.

Skeptical minds subsequently doubted the veracity of these reports, but there is new scientific support for them from Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell of Stanford University, who has conducted studies of elephants’ seismic communication in Africa and at the Oakland Zoo in California. She has shown that elephants can produce low-frequency sounds vocally and by stamping their feet, sounds that carry through both ground and air. The elephants can even discriminate between subtle differences in seismic signals from different callers within their group. They “hear” through their sensitive feet as well as their ears, often leaning forward on one of their front feet to “listen” more clearly and, by using the three feet on the ground, determine the direction of the sound wave through triangulation. The Khao Lak elephants were twice alarmed, by seismic waves from the Andaman earthquake that traveled through the earth, and then by low-frequency waves the tsunami sent through the air.

As in Hiro, Japan in 1854, knowing the warning signs of a tsunami made the difference between life and death in 2004. Amazingly, three indigenous tribes on the Indonesian islands of Andaman and Nicobar escaped largely unharmed, although they were struck within minutes of the quake. Knowledge of tsunamis had been passed down orally within the tribes; they recognized the signs and fled safely to their islands’ volcano-formed hills. Just minutes before the tsunami hit Andaman and Nicobar, it struck nearby Aceh where many residents were immigrants with no knowledge of tsunamis. In Aceh, over 240,000 people died or were missing and presumed dead, producing by far the highest casualties of any place the tsunami landed.

 

MEADOWS AND THE WOMEN found the road that circled up the hill behind Khao Lak, now surrounded on all sides by water, mud, and debris. He was hobbling from his injuries and the women had lost their shoes, but Meadows had somehow managed to hang onto one of his Teva sandals, which he used as best he could to create a small path through the jagged pieces of furniture and glass that littered the road. Thais from the few hillside shops that weren’t destroyed brought out water and small emergency supplies, offering them to the growing band of the injured walking the road, or collapsing by its side. A man appeared from a dive shop at an unfinished resort on the hilltop and directed them to a makeshift shelter they had formed there.   

The scene on the grounds of the Phu Khao Lak Resort combined the qualities of the surreal and hyper-real that follow a massive trauma, where the expectations of ordinary life are abruptly upended. Some people were hysterical, especially those who didn’t and couldn’t know the fate of missing family members or friends. Others were catatonic with shock, including children, whose blank faces tore at Meadows, who had a seven-year-old son at home in Hawaii. Many people were naked, their clothes torn away by the furious force of the water and the wreckage it hurled forward. Other people were covered in blood from their own wounds or from trying to stem the blood loss of loved ones or strangers. 

Over the next several hours, about 1500 battered and traumatized people of several nationalities straggled into the resort. Meadows himself counted over 120 cuts and gouges on his body, in addition to the sprains, and a then unknown back injury that would require cortisone shots for years to come. But he also had first aid training. All around him were people with broken ribs and open wounds and bleeding heads. His schooling and instincts kicked in, helping him make sense of the chaotic scene before him. Meadows gathered pens and paper and sent volunteers to collect names and post them to help people find family members and friends. When he announced he was a medic, a crying German woman with a head wound pleaded with him to help her son, who couldn’t breathe. Meadows rushed to where he lay, later recalling that the boy, who was ten and named Paul, had “the bluest face and lips” he had ever seen. There was a bandage laid over Paul’s chest, and he was fruitlessly struggling to draw a breath. Meadows recognized these as signs of a sucking chest wound, and removed the bandage to reveal a two-inch hole that went through the entire chest cavity, breaking the vacuum that the lungs require to expand and contract. Acting quickly, Meadows yelled to the man from the dive shop to fetch a tube of the silicon gel that divers use to seal their cameras and flashlights. Paul continued to struggle and then relaxed, as if lapsing into a coma. When the man returned with the gel, Meadows smeared it around the edges of a bandage, pressed it to the boy’s chest, and held it there until he heard a sudden rush of air enter Paul’s lungs. Then he turned to his relieved mother and started bandaging her head.

Through the evening and into the night, as survivors poured into the resort, Meadows triaged and treated the victims’ injuries. He forced himself not to dwell on the bodies of the dead, and instead learned to use quick glances at the severely injured to check for signs of life. The available supplies were almost laughable, mostly tin-box first aid kits gathered here and there, with tiny vials of iodine or mercurochrome to use as antiseptics. A giant bottle of acetaminophen turned up, and Meadows went through the rows, handing out the only pain medicine he had, binding broken bones with pipe and cloth, showing others what to do, and cleaning the wounds as best he could given the scarcity of clean water. Volunteer translators of multiple languages followed him as he made the rounds. Over the evening, other medically trained tourists arrived and helped care for the wounded, first two German nurses and then a Serbian doctor who had seen and treated worse during his country’s civil wars, and who would become Meadows’ close friend after that day. Running out of supplies, the two made their way back to the village below, where they saw the tsunami’s grim aftermath in piles of bodies washed up on the beach. They were fortunate to locate a still-standing clinic, which they raided for drugs and bandages. 

By midnight, the doctor knew they needed more help; several people with diabetes and heart disease needed their medications to survive through the next day. They decided to seek assistance from a small hospital 15 miles away, found a motorcycle on the grounds of the resort, and headed south in the direction of Phuket. It proved a troubled trip. The road was destroyed in places, and they had to control their rage when a group of policemen demanded a bribe to let them through. But far worse for Meadows was being jostled by the ride. Every bump sent an agonizing charge through his left side, and the rushing wind chafed the stinging gashes on his arms and legs. He hadn’t eaten all day and once he arrived at the hospital, against his intention to return to Khao Lak, his body finally collapsed.

The next day, he was taken by ambulance to Phuket and by plane to Bangkok, where he first began to try to assimilate and describe what had happened to him in a series of emails to family and friends. Now thinking about Caroline, who he assumed was dead, he wrote as if speaking directly to her, apologizing for suggesting they go snorkeling together that morning, and expressing the survivor’s guilt that is a common and anguishing symptom of post traumatic stress. “You shouldn’t have to go on this journey alone,” he wrote.

 

UNLIKE IN JAPAN, VERY FEW IMAGES or videos of the Andaman tsunami survived. There were no news helicopters in Aceh to photograph the wave surging out of the bays picking up houses and cars like so many chess pieces, or to witness the wholesale destruction of forests and cities, and their inhabitants. A satellite did pass over the area a few days after the tsunami, and where once there were homes and businesses and harbors filled with fishing boats, the satellite images show a lone white mosque left standing in a slick of debris-ridden red mud.[2] In Southeast Thailand, few among the estimated 8,000 Christmas vacationers had the warning time or presence of mind to make home videos. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hilo, Hawaii picked up the earthquake immediately, but there were no buoys to sense the tsunami waves, no news teams to report it, and, as it became appallingly clear, no agency or person in Sumatra or Thailand or Sri Lanka or India who could effectively alert and evacuate citizens in harm’s way.  

After the tragedy, the U.S. and many other governments, agencies, organizations, and individual volunteers did respond with assistance and reform, and in myriad ways. Dwayne Meadows thought of little else. Returning to Hawaii, he joined a group in Hilo, led by a woman who as a girl had survived the tsunami there in 1946 that killed 159 people, to create the Pacific Tsunami Museum, which collects oral histories from victims all over the world and mounts exhibits designed to educate visitors about the danger. Meadows also joined a state advisory commission and collaborated with a group of scientists who used new data from Andaman and other tsunamis to improve the state’s inundation maps, which show how high a wave’s run up might reach under various scenarios. He admits making a pest of himself trying to improve their accuracy. Waikiki hotels and other influential tourist businesses resisted the new maps because the inundation line moved further inland than earlier calculations, which Meadows and the other scientists argued were based on dubious geophysical assumptions. The hotels complained that the new maps would drive up their insurance bills and scare tourists, and in the end, they largely prevailed. The older maps are still in use, and few of Hawaii’s tourists are warned or educated about the tsunami danger when they come to the islands. Still, Meadows feels that awareness regarding tsunamis among island residents has improved, and most knew what to do when the 2011 Tohoku wave sped toward them. Despite significant property damage, there were no casualties in Hawaii.

Five years earlier, in 2006, the U.S. Congress had passed two new laws to improve tsunami alert systems and education. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now maintains thirty-nine Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoys, up from six in 2001, which collect data from pressure sensors on the ocean floor via acoustic transmissions, and then upload the data to satellites. Most are located along the Pacific “ring of fire” zones of tectonic activity, with an additional four now in the Indian Ocean, up from zero. The improved DART system responded perfectly after the earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011, detecting the tsunami immediately, generating animated models showing when and where the waves would strike, and posting them on the web. 

But detection is only the first in the chain of events that must run smoothly in order to save lives and protect property during a tsunami. Detection needs to be translated efficiently into warnings that are widely transmitted and widely understood. The Japanese use sirens and alerts that automatically flash on televisions and cell phones, conduct frequent public drills, and provide well-marked signage showing citizens where to run to safety. In Meadows’ view, the critical public education component has been given short shrift in the U.S. and varies too widely state by state. 

One preventative measure, becoming more difficult as population pressures push people to live in riskier places, is simply not to build houses or schools or nuclear plants in high-risk zones. Meadows has publicly chided NOAA, where he works, for building new facilities in Newport Beach, Oregon, where the flat elevation, shallow beaches, and proximity to the Cascadia fault make it one of the highest risk areas for tsunami casualties in the country. As many people learned from news coverage in the aftermath of the Japan events, the Cascadia fault off the Pacific Northwest coast has two subducting tectonic plates, like those in Japan, that have been colliding and building up pressure for over three hundred years. Cascadia is capable of generating a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that in minutes would speed a tsunami toward the Washington, Oregon, and Northern California coasts. Blue tsunami warning signs dot Highway 1 in Northern California and Oregon, and most beaches have sirens, but it is less clear where the actual escape routes lie. Local public education efforts are spotty. National Tsunami Awareness Week in 2011 passed by nearly unnoticed, despite falling in late March as coverage of the Japan catastrophe was still playing daily on global television screens.

 

CAROLINE SACHS MANAGED TO STAY ALIVE in Khao Lak on December 26th in much the same way that Meadows did. Trapped near the ceiling of her hotel room by the surging wave, she searched through the dark water, found an opening, and swam through it—perhaps a window, she can’t really say—and was swept up into a forest behind the resort and then back out to sea. Due to her trajectory, when Sachs swam back to shore, she wandered into a different makeshift shelter from Meadows. As she recovered from her wounds, Sachs also worried about him, knowing that his bungalow was only a few feet off the beach, and she tried in the following weeks to find out if he was still alive. She finally located him through one of the dive shops where he’d rented equipment; their records remained intact after the tsunami and they put her in touch with him in Hawaii. 

They had an emotional reunion in March at her family home in Germany. Together, they drove to see Paul, the German boy Meadows saved at the resort, who by then had nearly recovered from the worst of his chest injuries. On their return trip, Meadows and Sachs, both scientists and diving enthusiasts, developed a plan to return to Thailand to assist groups restoring the coral reefs damaged by the tsunami. In truth, Meadows had already started to formulate a plan before he left for Germany. 

Meadows has spent much of his career at NOAA working with endangered or threatened species, especially on the reefs. Now in Washington D.C., he heads a group that tracks “species of concern” and seeks ways to protect them and their habitat before they fall on the endangered species list. While still posted in Hawaii in 2004, one of his assignments was to remove military debris in the Northwest Islands that was entangling sea turtles, a technical and sometimes hazardous task. From this experience, Meadows became trained in debris removal and knew how to assemble the necessary equipment and personnel. He also knew the Thai reef, and he had a boss willing to give him time off to return to the Similan Islands.

Meadows called a friend from his doctoral program at Oregon State University, a marine biologist named Deborah Bonner, who had started a non-profit organization to raise money and help coordinate ecosystem restoration in the wake of disasters. Bonner’s life had changed when, returning from a research project, she survived an airplane crash and fire on a foggy runway in Taiwan that killed 83 of her fellow passengers. Disaster changes its survivors in ways both predictable and unforeseeable. Most develop Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome within six months, and the psychologists who study and treat PTSD point out that a disaster’s power to destroy its victim’s mental health typically far outlasts the physical or infrastructural damage, and is harder to repair. Like soldiers in a war, victims often feel as if no one who hasn’t lived through such an experience can possibly understand it, and many develop a concomitant sense of deep connection with fellow survivors. Some, like Bonner and later Meadows, make a lifelong commitment to helping those who have been similarly traumatized, including, in their case, other species.[3] When Meadows called, Bonner moved to set up a Tsunami Relief Fund to coordinate funds, volunteers, and logistics for his coral restoration effort.

The coral reefs of Southeast Asia comprise one of the more diverse and fecund ecosystems in the world, spawning the fish that are the lifeblood of the area’s fishing and tourism industries. After the Andaman event, a small group of scientists argued that coral reefs damaged by waves should not be restored, since tsunamis are considered natural events. But many of the coral had already been compromised by pollution, and some were battered by debris from buildings and vehicles that then settled in on top of the reefs. At Similan Islands, 250 individual sea fan colonies were dislodged and broken and suffering tissue damage. The delicate soft coral could continue to filter water for food to stay alive, but after a few months of drifting they were likely to die.

Meadows and Sachs felt confident about diving in Similan and about the restoration work itself, and they were eager to experiment with a few newly developed methods for reattaching the coral to the ocean substrate using cement and marine epoxy. But they admitted to being anxious about returning to Thailand, especially to Khao Lak, where they had witnessed so many unbearable scenes. 

Arriving in Phuket five months after the tsunami, Meadows could see there was much still in ruins. Though the worst of the debris had been cleaned up, all that remained of many houses and shops were their foundations and plumbing. Meadows and Sachs met their small group of international volunteers and continued to Phi Phi, the place made famous by Leonardo DeCaprio in the movie, The Beach. To the dismay of local Thais, the international aid organizations had mostly confined their efforts in Phuket because there were nicer hotels for their workers, but in remote places the local efforts were often more impressive and better sustained over time. In Phi Phi, a British adventure tour owner whose shops and home were destroyed was spearheading the coral restoration effort, and there were several college students who had taken a year off from school to help. Meadows taught them how to safely use an underwater vacuum for debris, and helped them create a coral nursery. Although some of the debris—suitcases with tags, toys, beach umbrellas—did stir their grief, the demanding communal work of the repairing the reef did, as they had hoped, have a salutary effect on Meadows and Sachs, a feeling they could only hope to could sustain through the return to Khao Lak, the last stop on the itinerary. But first, they traveled up the coast to Similan, where sandy ocean bottoms and stronger currents complicated the work of reattaching the large sea fans, and required divers working in pairs. The team devised a method with local Thai biologists for temporarily removing the coral, which can withstand being out of the water for short periods if kept moist and shaded, attaching it to a substitute holdfast—basically a base made with cement—and returning it to the ocean.

Arriving finally in Khao Lak where they had been that fateful Christmas, Meadows and Sachs couldn’t avoid the nightmares they had dreaded, or flashbacks of the bodies that the ocean waves had left in trees or stacked in piles on the beach,. Meadows revisited over and over the spot where his bungalow had been, and he found himself looking obsessively for the face of the Thai woman he’d been unable to save. But Meadows also met people like the owner of a small mountain hotel who had moved to Khao Lak to set up a wood shop he dubbed the “Thai Ikea,” where he recycled debris to make and donate coffins, build basic furniture, and repair fishing boats.

Meadows has returned four times to help with restoration, and over the first critical year, 450 whole sea fans or broken fragments were recovered and reattached. Recently, he got what he hopes will be the last cortisone shot into his spine, and he stays in touch with Sachs and Bonner and Paul’s German family. “They tell you that’s the best thing you can do,” he says. “Keep talking about it.” More than many, Meadows has also been willing to talk publicly, not only about his experiences, but also with increasing urgency about how unprepared for a major tsunami America remains. In many coastal areas, tsunamis would arrive within an hour of the triggering event, and in the past they have already taken lives in Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, California, and Oregon. A 2011 National Academy of Science report, a product of the concern generated by the Andaman event, locates nine subduction zones capable of spawning life-threatening tsunamis, four of them directly off American coasts—Alaska-Aleutian, Carribbean, Cascadia, and a second fault line in the Northwest, Seattle, where Amazon and infrastructural information companies are located. The report notes there have been improvements since 2004, especially in deploying more DART buoys, but concludes, in the dry language of official Washington—a language that Meadows has spent tirelessly translating into human terms for all who would listen—that “current capabilities are still not sufficient to meet the challenge posed by a tsunami generated close to land.”

© 2018 Kerry Tremain, all rights reserved.

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[1] Technically, a small amount of water does move in a wind wave, in a series of circles that start at the surface and diminish in size as they continue down the water column. If you closely watch boats bob in the waves near shore, you can detect that as they go down with the trough, they are also pitched a little forward. When the boats rise up again with the crest, they move a little backwards until they are roughly in the same place they started—a full circle. A tsunami’s wavelength is so much longer than a wind wave that the circle the tsunami wave generates extends very far down the water column, creating the effect of a moving wall of water. For the same reason, tsunamis often break (are suddenly pushed higher) much farther from shore than a wind wave. A tsunami’s circular wave movement, determined by its long wavelength, can hit the bottom of the sea several miles from the coast. Some are so large they break on the continental shelf, the part of a continent that extends underwater as much as 500 feet and sometimes for several hundred miles from shore.

[2] A visually accurate fictional account does exist. Carefully reconstructing the Andaman events from a few videos and the testimony of survivors, Clint Eastwood created a remarkably vivid reconstruction of the tsunami, including the way the casual languor of a tropical day yielded to a dawning suspicion of trouble only moments before the swift and terrible violence struck, in the opening sequence of his film, Hereafter.

[3] There is evidence that participation in community recovery activities is psychologically healthy. One study that looked at tsunami-affected mothers in Sri Lanka show reduced mental health risks from PTSD and depression from community participation in recovery efforts.