Thursday, March 17, 2011


It was a strange photograph. It was neither depressing nor grisly. In fact it reminded me of a Van Gogh painting. There was something about the coarse ordinariness on its surface and the overwhelming power of the emotional undercurrents of the moment that reminded me of The Potato Eaters.

But I had had enough. I turned away from that page and flipped to the sports section. But halfway through a story about Chelsea’s prospects in the Champion’s League this season, I stopped, and went back to the photograph.

Half of a flight of wooden stairs dropped down from the top left hand corner of the picture. Next to the stairs, to its right, lay broken shards of glass and a twisted and bent cabinet. At the foot of the stairs sat an old man, his left hand clutching a bundle to his chest with his head resting on the broken steps. He was dressed in a dark blue sweater and light blue track pants and leaves and dirt and splotches of dried mud clung to them. But it was his face that was the canvas, for it was etched with lines of exhaustion and despair and the furrowed brow seemed to suggest a dull nagging ache or thought that seemed to be bothering him even as he slept. And something about the man reminded me of a child who had woken up but pretended to be asleep because he didn’t want to go to school… of a soul desperate to escape the inevitable unhappy truths of a sad new day.

I didn’t know the man. I didn’t know his name or who or what he had lost during the night. I didn’t even know if the house that the picture found him in was his own or one that he had run into in a moment of desperation and I did not even know if he would have been happy to wake up at all that morning, but it really didn’t matter. That man had been dead for more than a day when the photographer found his body in a house destroyed by the tsunami in Sendai in north-eastern Japan.

What must have been going on in his mind when he saw that wall of water rushing towards him like a giant muddy monster slithering through town swallowing up all that lay before it. “High ground!” he must’ve thought, “I have to make it to higher ground!” He would’ve rushed inside the nearest house, perhaps his own, but the water would’ve reached him even as he turned. By the time he reached the stairs the water would have flooded the floor. Gasping, panting and struggling through the thick cascading slush, he must’ve tried to clamber up the stairs, but his strength failed him. Weakened by age, exhaustion and adrenaline, the man must have held on to whatever he couldfind as he slid back into the rising waters as they closed above him even as his last breath ebbed away into a stream of bubbles lost in the raging waters of that dark day.

But is this the inevitable scenario during a tsunami? When the big wave strikes (and it oft en strikes so hard that it actually moves a nation, literally) are we all doomed to drift with the waves of fate, to live, or more likely die, on a raft or a prayer? Or is there something we can actually do during a fit of Poseidonic rage that can actually ensure (or at the very least increase the odds of) our survival?

The more survivor stories I read, the more I’m inclined to believe that no matter how wrathful the waves maybe, they perhaps always give us a chance, or at the very least, a sign. From the shores of Chile and the Maldives to Japan and Hawai, every soul to have survived the apocalypse will tell you that if you stick to the following principles, you give yourself a very good chance of surviving a tsunami. Here they are in fairly random order but the first one is the one that saved the most lives so even if you forget the others, when the sirens go off or you see the ocean reaching for the sky before it reaches for you, remember to…

Run… run to higher ground!

I know it’s fairly logical that when the waves come calling, you should reach for higher ground but how high is high enough? A good stout hill, high enough to keep you high and dry and yet not too steep or difficult to climb, especially for the old or the weak, is ideal. But what if there are no hills to climb? Well big tall buildings with strong foundations and quite a few floors also give you a good chance. And if the building’s not too tall, go straight to the roof. That’s your best chance.

Cars off er little protection unless you’re using them to drive inland if you get stuck in the flood but Koichi Takarain, a truck driver who was stranded in his tall four-tonne behemoth was able to survive the tsunami even as the waters swirled around him and carried away smaller vehicles.

And what do you do if you are stuck without tall buildings, hills or trucks to climb and there’s a tidal wave chasing you down? You look for a tree. Hopefully one that is at least 50 feet tall. Smaller ones in all probability will get washed away.

And if you do get washed away, grab some floating debris. It could be your last chance.

But even before you run to higher ground, teach yourself how to read the signs of the sea. Tremors on the beach are a sign for you to head for the hills. And if there’s a sudden drop in the water level or the sea recedes, leaving a bare bed in its wake you better brace yourself for it’s a sign that the ocean’s about to spit far and long.

Never delay an evacuation for anything. For ‘anyone’, maybe its worth the risk, but for nothing else. Abandon all thoughts of retrieving your valuables until the danger has passed.

And lastly, heed all warnings and do not take them lightly until you get an all clear from local authorities. In May 1960, when a tsunami hit Hawai, the first waves aft er the warnings were rather small and expecting the worst to be over, a teenaged Carol Brown returned to her house by the beach a little too soon only for huge wave to sweep her and her house away. Carol survived and learnt a terrible lesson.

Whether you live by the coast or happen to find yourself on a beach during one of your holidays, and God forbid but if the big wave strikes, hope these lessons from those who have been to death’s door and back will hold you and me and those we love in good stead. And with a prayer on my lips for those who are still battling their terrible fate in the land of the rising sun, I hope and wish that such battles are few and far between in the days of our future.


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