How the 2004 tsunami is changing disaster response

Copyright: Martin Adler / Panos

Speed read

  • Magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra caused the tsunami, affecting 12 countries
  • Total losses: 230,000 people dead, 1.6 million displaced, $14 billion in damages
  • New tools and mentality are charting disaster relief towards long-term recovery

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For millions around the world, December 26 dawns each year with a glaring recollection. On that Sunday morning in 2004, the ocean defied routine, pulling away from shore, then racing back with cataclysmic force.

My husband, Jerry, and I were at home in northern Thailand that morning. We then felt a jiggle — an earthquake? A friend shortly sent a message wondering if we’d heard the news about the tsunami.

We soon booked a flight to Phuket on a near-empty jet. Evacuation planes and body boxes sat on the tarmac. A nearby warehouse served as a rescue centre. We interviewed doctors and nurses, rescue teams and shell-shocked survivors.

All told, the tsunami killed 230,000 people, displaced more than 1.6 million, and caused an estimated US$14 billion in damage across 12 countries. [1] It had begun with a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. No one in the region was prepared. The disaster sparked an unparalleled outpouring of aid — about US$13.4 billion worldwide.

New tools of disaster response

Today, we live in a different world; we are different people. The tsunami changed the way scientists, NGOs and governments respond to disaster. Technology offers relief workers an array of innovative new tools. If another tsunami hits, we can hope for far less deadly and destructive results.

Our tools at the time were modest: pens and notebooks, basic cell phones, face masks and Jerry’s first digital camera purchased the night before. We had no Google maps or Twitter. Facebook was just 11 months old, still mostly the provenance of American college kids. Local tsunami information came out in photos, fliers and lists of missing persons plastered on walls outside local government offices.

So much has changed since about disaster response — from the instantaneous news and transfer of funds, to the tools that developers are designing for first responders: remote-controlled cockroaches equipped with microphones to record sounds amid rubble; DIY spectrometers for detecting drinking water contaminants; fireproof, waterproof, inflatable concrete canvas shelters; solar-powered inflatable LEDs; and 18-inch-high packable toilets with biodegradable waste bags. [2, 3]

There is now an alphabet soup of technologies for disaster communication. The Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) allows aid agencies to interact with mobile phone users through SMS. The All Partners Access Network (APAN) allows the US Defence Department to communicate through a website of forums and chats. GeoSHAPE allows aid groups to share up-to-date data on hospitals, roads and helicopter landing zones on integrated maps. [4]

Mentality has shifted, too. Before the tsunami, Mahieash Johnney, senior communications manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Sri Lanka, tells me the Sri Lankan government focused on helping victims in the aftermath. Now he said, government ministries collaborate in forecasting weather, analysing climate, helping farmers to prepare for and cope with climate, and getting people to safety within an hour of an earthquake. The government also formed the Ministry of Science and Technology as a result of the tsunami.

In June 2006, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was activated to alert residents of approaching tsunamis. When earthquakes hit, data are sent to meteorological centres in Hawaii and Japan, then coordinated with governments throughout the region. When an 8.6 magnitude earthquake struck northern Indonesia in 2012, sirens blared and millions of residents fled the coast. [5]

Building back better

Both Sri Lanka and Aceh, two of the hardest-hit regions, had already suffered years of warfare that left hundreds of thousands homeless, jobless or displaced. The tsunami was a second hit, and many relief agencies aimed to “build back better”.

Mike Rea, a Seattle philanthropist and co-founder of the group Give2Asia, says that recovery tends to work better when outside money supports trusted local organisations and existing programs. His group funnelled money through Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest people’s organisation, to rebuild and expand a vocational training centre. They helped the Chef’s Guild of Sri Lanka provide culinary training for youths in tsunami zones.

When Rea returned to Sri Lanka in 2012, he learned that many of the young chefs now work in tourism, locally and abroad, earning significantly more than they would fishing.

Long-term recovery is hard work; the aims aren’t just meeting immediate physical needs but solving “complex sort of socio-economic political challenges”, Rea tells SciDev.Net.

Those goals counter the short-term nature of fundraising today. “Twenty years ago there was a two- to four-week window with disasters,” Rea says. “Now the fundraising window is like four days right after the disaster.” After that, Facebook, Twitter and technology lead the public and their pocketbooks in different directions.

Johnney tells me the tsunami has made Sri Lanka a more liveable place. The country “had to come out of its shell” and move beyond a mentality of day-to-day survival. Government ministries are better coordinated, people in risk-prone areas are better educated”, and the public is better prepared for disasters. Compared with ten years ago, Johnney sees “a Sri Lanka that is transformed from a nation of poverty and begging, to a nation of resilience”.

That word, resilience, is commonly used in reference to survivors — of any tragedy, anywhere. But it takes time to build.

For millions, the worst imaginable nightmares began ten years ago this month. But a decade later, I believe we are all stronger.

Karen Coates, a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, reports regularly on development and human rights in Asia. She lived in Thailand at the time of the 2004 tsunami. Her latest book, with Jerry Redfern, is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.


[1] The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) 2005-2014 Quick Fact Sheet (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, November 2014)
[2] Laura Kiniry 9 Disaster-relief inventions (Popular Mechanics, 28 December 2012)
[3] Kelly Dickerson Cyber-Roach! Mic-Equipped Bugs Could Aid Disaster Rescue (LiveScience, 7 November 2014)
[4] Darrell M. West and Elizabeth Valentini How mobile devices are transforming disaster relief and public safety (Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, July 2013)
[5] Olivia Rondonuwu Tsunami warning: This time the system mostly worked (The Christian Science Monitor, 12 April 2012)