Cover Story


Asia's wall of water wreaks a disaster of biblical proportions, sparks a bidding war among countries of compassion, and tests the grit of the region's survivors

Issue: "Tsunami," Jan. 15, 2005

"We are in the hands of Jehovah, not Nebuchadnezzar," Charles Spurgeon wrote his congregation from his sickbed a century ago. "Noah's flood rose not an inch higher than God's decree allowed," he added. "Nothing great or small escapes the hand of Him who numbers the hairs of our head, and keeps the paths of our feet. . . . The wind is tempered to the shorn lamb . . . the load is fitted to the weak shoulder . . . the knife of the heavenly Surgeon never cuts deeper than is absolutely necessary."

But then a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rumbled four miles beneath a Southeast Asian sea, waking a wall of water that within seven hours swept the Indian Ocean from Malaysia to Mombasa; swallowed coastal inhabitants by the tens of thousands, from lowly fishermen to luxury-class beach frolickers; raised the ocean's table by nearly a foot as far away as San Diego, and-before it ended-caused the very Earth to wobble on its axis, to lose a fraction of a second and to force global positioning satellites into recalibration. The words of Spurgeon are as surely true as they are sorely tested in the largest natural disaster in recorded history.

The tsunami of 2004 provokes suffering in antediluvian proportions. Its aftermath yields survival tales that might astonish Jonah. When 23-year-old Rizal Sapura was plucked alive eight days after the 7:58 a.m. Dec. 26 quake, floating 100 miles from where he first was pitched into the sea, could anyone muster more astonishment? The Indonesian was one minute cleaning a mosque in Banda Aceh and the next washed out on a bed of tree wreckage. He survived on coconuts and rainwater until a Malaysian cargo ship, returning to its home port from South Africa, crossed his path in the vast Indian Ocean and rescued him.

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If most history is homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man), the days following the Christmas cataclysm were about natura homini lupus. Death tolls climbed even into the second post-disaster week. Would they top 160,000? 180,000? 200,000? Fears mounted that post-disaster deaths from contaminated water, homelessness, wreckage, and general deprivation might equal those claimed in the tidal wave. Relief workers and rescue teams had to turn their backs to the sea and face the survivors. World Health Organization officials estimate that 3 million to 5 million people are lacking basic food and shelter.

At the behest of the G-8 nations, government coffers opened in a bidding war of compassion. First Japan pledged $500 million to relief efforts, followed by the U.S. government at $350 million, the European Union at $202 million, and Norway at $180 million. Canada pledged $66 million and China offered $60 million. Then Australia stepped in on Jan. 5 with a $765 million pledge of grants and loans-sending public donations worldwide over the $3 billion mark. Those funds, and more, will be needed to right the region. Meantime, private efforts and local relief convoys are essential to handing the cup of water that's needed today.


In Chennai, Sam and Prema Sunder arrived to survey an apocalyptic landscape one hour after the tidal wave gobbled the second-largest beach in the world. The couple lives only a few miles from the coast in Tamil Nadu's state capital, known until recently as Madras. They work with local churches and in low-lying neighborhoods as part of a child outreach and charity ministry. The Sunders soon discovered that one familiar church was gone, swept away just as Sunday morning service was underway. Only the organist survived.

At first Mr. Sunder believed Chennai's death toll to be "perhaps in the hundreds," but it now stands at roughly 5,000. The country's death toll hovers at 10,000, with over 5,000 missing. At Nagapattinam Mr. Sunder and his wife were on hand when many of the 2,500 dead bodies there were discovered. Mr. Sunder reported by cell phone that the number of homeless in the area might top 10,000. The Sunders spent the week after disaster struck handing out blankets and bottled water to more than 300 families. But growing frustration with India's handling of the disaster only compounded his anguish.

"The government has announced that they have 'everything under control' and 'will not be looking at foreign aid in this hour of crisis,'" Mr. Sunder said. "Then the Foreign Minister came on television announcing the government may impose a 1 percent tax to 'harness funds for relief.' The government is embarrassed by their slow response and too prideful to accept outside help."


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