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The 2004 Tsunami in Phuket and the Future

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On December 24, 2004 a powerful, tsunami – essentially a series of tidal waves or a moving water mass of much higher than usual height – roared across the Indian Ocean leaving a path of death and destruction in the coastal areas of several countries. It is estimated that about 230,000 people died during the tidal onslaught. The destruction of property was incalulable.

The west coast of Thailand was one of the areas to suffer. There were about 5,400 confirmed deaths in Thailand, including about 2,500 foreigners. Alittle under 2,800 people have remained missing. Property damages were estimated at around 400,000,000 USD.

Phuket Island, being on the west side of the Thai mainland, was very vulnerable to the Tsunami. Although the eastern side of the island did not suffer damage when the tsunami struck, the western side of the island, which faced the Indian Ocean, did feel the effects of the tsunami.

The people and businesses of Kamala Beach, Patong Beach, Kata Beach and Karon Beach suffered considerable damage. There were about 250 reported confirmed deaths on Phuket Island although it is estimated that perhaps 1,000 illegally employed and therefore "invisible" Burmese laborers also died. Property damage was estimated at 250,000,000 US dollars.

While the damages suffered were real, there was a considerable amount of debate afterwards about exactly how much damage had really been done – the Western media were accused of exaggerating the damage – and many resorts and businesses reopened soon afterward. By February, 2005 it was "business as usual" in the beach communities of western Phuket Island and toward 2007, the physical destruction of the tsumani was largely healed.

It was said that if the towns did not look the same as they had before the tsunami, there was no evidence to indicate that anything bad had actually happened there. It was reported that the beaches and ocean themselves were restored to conditions approximating their state before the tourism boom began several years earlier. While it had taken some time, the tourists had finally returned and life was going on as usual. Now, the tsunami seems a distant memory, one which is commemorated with plaques, but which has lost its power.

At least some people still ask the questions, however, "Will it happen again?" or "Should I be afraid?". It is easy to say that tsunamis never happen, or they only happen every 10 million years, so there is no reason to worry but they do happen more often than is realized. Although that does not mean that a tsunami will come to Phuket again soon, if one ever comes again. To some degree, it is up to tourists and business people to look at past history – as best as it can be known – and then make their own decisions.

Tsunamis are caused pimarily by severe earthquakes, and the 2004 Tsunami was the result of a 9.3 magnitude earthquake. An earthquake of this magnitude is rare but there have been three earthquakes approaching or exceeding this magnitute since 1950, the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960 (magnitude 9.5), the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake in Prince William Sound (magnitude 9.2) and an earthquake near Kamchatka in Russia in 1952 (magnitude 9.0).

Each of these caused tsunamis but the death tolls were quite low. In the 19th century, several severe earthquakes occurred in the region of South America which were "probably" over 9.0 magnitude but the insrumentation did not exist to measure them accurately. Tsunamis can be caused by earthquakes at magnitudes of between 7 and 8 and these are much more frequent.

So, tsunamis do occur more often than realized. It is a great source of fortune for Phuket Island and Thailand, however, that earthquakes and tsunamis ARE VERY RARE in the Indian ocean area! Archeological research, however, indicates that Phuket Island has been hit by comparable tsunamis at "sometime" in the very distant past.

Will the tsunami happen again?

Given the facts that tsunamis do happen, if rarely, and that nothing can stop them when they do happen, the question remains as to how much people should be afraid of them. How destructive are they and do they need to be in terms of loss of life and property when they do occur? Are they so terrifying and threatening that people should change the ways they live? Should tourists stay somewhere there is no water and should businessmen go into other businesses?

In terms of threat to life, they need not be threatening, at least not in a modern, technolgically advanced society. Firstly, it is possible to have a very good idea when there is a danger of tsunami. They happen for a specific reason. Secondly, detection, communication and early warning can decrease the likehood of fatalities and provide people with a sense of safety and security.

Tsunamis are not like hurricanes: they do not penetrate very far inland – the 2004 tsunami penetrated only a maximum of 500 meters – so it is relatively easy for people to "get out of the way" if they know a tsunami is coming. A tsunami detection and early warning system has been in operation in the Pacific Ocean for several years and in November 2005 a German developed tsunami early waring system – the Tsunami Early Warning System (TEWS) – was implemented in the Indian Ocean.

Thailand is now surrounded by US made, satelite- linked, tsunami detection buoys which will give warning of the approach of any tsunami. In asmuchas Phuket Island has a lot of elevated terrain very near the major beach communities, there is no reason for causualties if the warning systems are activated correctly by the authorities.

In terms of the threat to property, the issue is alittle more complex because property can’t get up and move to the higher elevations! But whatever damage to property occurred, the recovery was quick. Unfirtunately businesses and some business people were not able to survive, but the "new beach" that occurred is both bigger and better than what was washed away.

And very importantly, it has been pointed out, much of the property damage and destruction that occurred could have been prevented or minimized. Most of the property that was severely damaged or destroyed was property that fronted the beach, small stores and guest houses. Those places away from the beach did not suffer nearly as much.

There are many reasons why buildings should not be built on the beach, and some of them having nothing to do with tsunami, but the threat of tsunami is certainly an important one! And the irony is that a little planning and common sense will reduce future property loss substantially!! The main thing that is necessary to protect property is to build sensibly and this is a lesson that, hopefully, has been learned by all.

Is it safe to visit Phuket?

Although the tsunami of 2004 was a terrible event, it need not tramatize tourist, businessman or community. What came after the tsunami is bigger and better and more intelligent than what was. Important lessons have been learned.

Safety and warning systems have been put into operation. People know now how to respond quickly and effectively. A tsunami will probably not come again but if it does, the people of Phuket Island will be ready and will handle it.

And there is no reason – certainly not fear of tsunami – that people can't enjoy the wonderful things that Phuket has to offer: sun, the sand, the beautiful water, and the opportunity for happiness.

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