As I followed the initial coverage of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I was reminded of a time in the early1980s when I spent some months researching the effects of a nuclear war– the thermal pulses from the detonations, the bursts of radiation, the blast waves spreading out from ground zero, the immediate local fallout and the delayed stratospheric fallout. Of course, my research was into a merely possible event–humanity’s only actual experience of nuclear blasts having been the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–whereas the news from the Indian Ocean was actual.
Still, the similarities were striking. As would happen in a nuclear war, villages and small cities were scoured from the face of the earth. “Before” and “after” satellite photographs showed the erasure even of geographic features of the landscape. Islands sank. New harbors formed. Towns were lakes. Like photographs of bombing damage, the before photos showed the fine articulation of human cultivation and dwelling–in this case, a salad of greenery laced with lines of red tile roofs and roads–and the after pictures were a smear of browns. As in nuclear war, the sweep of destruction was immense, involving a dozen countries, some as far away as East Africa. As in nuclear war, the ground was carpeted with corpses. Like the fires set by nuclear war, the flooding waters tore friends and families apart, leaving some to die while others saved themselves. As in nuclear war, it was not just immense numbers of individual lives that had been swept away; it was also the support systems of human life–transportation, fresh water, power, medical services. And so many of the injured who might otherwise have survived could not be cared for, and died. As in nuclear war, the many tales of individual survival both brought the experience to life and yet at the same time seemed to falsify it. For at its heart were the tens of thousands who had perished and could tell nothing.
Yet while a nuclear war would be man-made, the tsunami was nature’s work. “There is something strange happening with the sea,” someone called out to Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who was vacationing in Sri Lanka and saw the sea suddenly rise. Just as strange, it then withdrew with a sucking sound, leaving a wide stretch of the seabed bare, the fish gasping. And then it rushed back in again. A man in Indonesia said, “The water separated, and then it attacked.” A Kenyan man said, “It was like seeing the sun setting in the east. The tide was crazy. The water wasn’t following the rules.” Something strange happened with the land, too, when the earthquake that caused the tsunami struck. And soon even the sky seemed to be acting strange. “It was like Armageddon,” said Zukarnaen Buyung, a Sumatran construction worker. “We didn’t know it was a wave. We thought it was some kind of rain. Everything behind us was black. The sky, the water.” All of nature–water, land and sky–was breaking the rules, and attacking.