256th Meeting – Tuesday, January 18th 2005.

The Tsunami - and its Aftermath
A Panel Discussion with Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sampan Singharajwarapan, Dave Percy and Dr. Sombat Tapanya


Present: Anon Ymous, Alan Adasiak, Hans & Sangdao Bänziger, Paul Barber-Riley, Mark Bleadon, Bonnie Brereton, Liza Brereton, Chris Brigder, John Cadet, Mike & Kay Calavan, Chamnan Chanruang, Peter Dawson, Brian Doberstyn, Billy Doerner, Lorenz Ferrari, James Fuller, Louis Gabaude, Miguel Garaizabal, Kate Gunn, Peter K. Hansen, Oliver Hargreave, Colin Hinchelwood, Reinhard Hohler, June Hulley, Peter Kouwenberg, Peter & Sally Kunstadter, Mike Long, David & Anita Muir, Catherine Nesbit, Jean-Claude Neveu, Thomas Ohlson, Margaret & Michael O’Shea, Aram Phongchiewboon, Duangruthai Phongchiewboon, Aurathai Phongchiewboon, Atchareeya Saisin, Clarence Shettlesworth, Jay Slangen, David Steane, Vanvadee Suvatanashau, Rattiros Tapaowtong, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Heidi Tschumi, Pierre Wittman. An audience of 49.
The panel of three speakers talked about the geological aspects of the tsunami and its medical, social and psychological aftermath. These minutes are complied by your convenor, Brian Hubbard. Your convenor writes- This is a summary of the 2-hour plus meeting which, regretfully, falls a long way short of including every detail of the mass of information presented by the panelist, and in the following question and answer session, and fails entirely in conveying the ambience of the atmosphere which prevailed. You had to be there.  

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sampan Singharajwarapan is from the Department of Geological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Chiang Mai University. Dr. Sampan used a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the geological aspects of the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami - how, why and where it happened. As background to the disaster, Dr. Sampan started by explaining that for the past 200 years, one tectonic plate had been pushing, moving, against another tectonic plate at a rate of 6 cm a year, with a consequent build up of pressure. On the morning of December 26th, an earthquake about 2 km below the ocean floor was the trigger that caused the edge of one plate, about 200 km in length, from Sumatra to the Nicobar Islands, to instantaneously ‘pop up’ vertically about 10 metres and move laterally about 20 metres. The depth of the Indian Ocean at the epicenter of the earthquake is about 5 km. The movement of the edge of the tectonic plate displaced the water that started the tsunami. On the surface of the ocean at the epicenter of the earthquake the swell would have been not more than about a metre high. The speed of the swell moving away from the epicenter was about 800 km/hr, (the speed of a jet airplane) with wave crests about 100 to 200 km apart. As the swell reached shallower water, its speed slowed, the distance between the crests reduced, and the wave height increased. Phuket was spared the full force of the tsunami because it was sheltered to an extent by Sumatra. The first wave that hit the coast at Phuket was about 3.5 metres high and traveling at about 50 km/hr. Further along the coast, the first wave that hit Khao Lak was more than 11 metres high, and the first wave that to hit Banda Aceh on Sumatra was more than 15 metres high, all traveling at between 50-60 km/hr.            

The earthquake was detected by seismic stations but its magnitude was initially underestimated. The Richter scale is imprecise at magnitudes of more than 7. A more accurate measurement is given by the Magnitude Moment, Mw, scale. It seems however that even after the reported magnitude was increased to 8.7 on the Richter scale, a tsunami warning was not issued because, while tsunamis occur frequently in the Pacific Ocean, they are a rare occurrence in the Indian Ocean. The first definite indication of the oncoming tsunami was when the costal waters receded by up to 300 metres on some beaches. Dr. Sampan said that at this time the people on the beaches would have had 15-20 minutes to walk away from the beach and find high ground. Dr. Sampan concluded his presentation with an image that simply read - “A little knowledge would have saved a lot of lives.”   

Dave Percy is a paramedic. He speaks English, Thai and French and upon his arrival in the South, on December 27th, initially acted as an interpreter and assisted medical staff in treating the physical injuries of those who were in the caught in the path of the tsunami. His vivid account of his first impressions when he arrived at a hospital, and then when he first saw the extent of the devastation, was harrowing. After spending some time in the hospital and then seeing the extent of the devastation his thought was – “How did anyone survive this?” Dave soon realised that while immediate needs - for medical treatment, food, clean water, and clothes, where being successfully met, longer term needs where not being addressed. He started putting together what he called Family Packs to distribute to people who where now homeless and destitute. The Family Packs contained 6 bowls and spoons for eating, saucepans and a stove to cook food, a tarpaulin and a 10-metre length of rope to construct a shelter, a mosquito net, a torch, and other basic survival equipment. Each Family Pack cost 1,200 baht to assemble. He then went out and distributed them.

Dave said that from what he saw in the first few days, the response by Thai people and others to the plight of the victims was immediate and overwhelming. Warehouses and storage facilities were full to overflowing with clothes, blankets, and other essentials. He also stressed that the response by the Thai government and local authorities was immediate, well coordinated and effective.          

In conclusion Dave said that for as much as being in the area and witnessing the devastation and suffering was difficult to come to terms with, the hardest part for many of the volunteers was leaving.  

Dr. Sombat Tapanya is from the Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University. He talked about the psychology effects of the disaster including post-traumatic stress and stress management. Dr. Sombat said that when faced with a catastrophic event on the scale of this disaster, everyone involved will suffer some degree of psychological trauma. This is normal, as is the process that people go through to come to terms with what happened.  The degree of traumatisation, the nature of the recovery process they go through, and the length of time it takes for them to complete the recovery process varies between individuals. While it is not possible to universally quantify ‘normal’ recovery time as a number of days, weeks or months, an individual will know for theirself what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ for them, and they will know when they reach a point of closure and are ready to move on with their life. Conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder occur when a person is unable to obtain closure. At this point Dr. Sombat drew parallels from the extensive experience he has had working with abused women and children. People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life. Other associated symptoms can include depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person's ability to function in social or family life.

Dr. Sombat said that there are many forms of treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, which would include counselling, different types of psychotherapy, medication, and for some the support of the religious faith, family and friends. These different forms of treatment are not mutually exclusive - the combination, relevance and success of treatment depending on the individual and their symptoms.  

Dr. Sombat concluded by saying that with time, support and patience, everyone can achieve closure and move on with their life.   

After the panelists had made their presentations, the members of the audience, many of whom had first-hand experience of the tsunami disaster and its aftermath, where invited to ask questions and make contributions to the discussion.