ch_5_tsunami_Chapman_LE - The Asian Tsunami in Sri Lankaa...

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A t 9:30 a.m. local time (03:30 GMT) on Boxing Day, 26 December, my wife Lillian and I were eating breakfast at the beachside Triton Hotel, Ahungalla, Sri Lanka (about 30 km north of Galle). The previous week we had been tour- ing Sri Lanka, ending our trip traveling through Yala National Park and Galle—places we hardly knew of before but images of which are now indelibly imprinted on the world (of about 150 staying at the Yala Safari Game Lodge, only 11 survived; the centre of Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 16-17th century Portuguese/Dutch fort and port, is essentially gone). The Triton Hotel is a three-story building, well designed by the famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Dawa and, thankfully, solidly constructed in 1981. As we finished break- fast, the sea slowly rose a few meters to the level of the hotel’s swimming pool and a small wave gently rolled through the pool and hotel lobby. Mention of a high tide immediately seemed wrong— Lillian and I had been walking on the beach several times and there was essentially no tide and the sea was calm. I said to Lillian, “There must have been an earthquake in the Indian Ocean” but with no previous experience assumed it to be small. Lillian, having suffered 30 years of the English understatement, immediately went and spoke to the man- ager and warned that worse might be to come and that it was important to get people off the beach. Gently the sea went back to its previous level and the hotel staff began to clean up. But it continued to retreat for the next 20 minutes or so and I began to realize that something big was coming. The sea level was now perhaps 7 m below normal. Lillian again spoke to the hotel manager who immediately got his staff out with a megaphone advising people to leave the beach. Many people had begun to go down onto the beach out of curiosity. At 10:10 a.m. the big wave came, rising to perhaps 7 m above normal. Most people in the hotel were already near the stairs and escaped to the higher floors. A few were ini- tially trapped on the ground floor in their rooms and pub- lic spaces but were rescued by hotel staff. Girls at the hotel reception were swept through the hotel lobby into the front gardens and survived clinging to palm trees. The ground floor of the hotel was devastated—all windows, doors, fur- niture, and belongings—were gone, swept first inland and then out to sea. Power, water and telephones were imme- diately cut, of course. No one from the hotel staff or guests was lost, although neighboring fishing communities cannot have been so lucky—before the wave we had been able to see, in the distance, villagers coming down to the beach to see the retreating sea. Tragically, it would have been impos- sible to warn them as things happened so fast. An elderly
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