Up the mountain
Sometime after 9:00AM on a beautiful Sunday morning, Annie got a call from our friend Yui telling us of the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that had devastated the beach front. We live more than a kilometer from the beach, so I was skeptical that anything would reach back here, but enough Hollywood disaster movies had created the image of apocalyptic possibilities. Information on what really had happened and what we could further expect was sketchy (typical in the local Thai rumor mill), but the panic on Annie’s face was clear: time to move.
Our landlord Pi Ut, who has become a dear family friend, has a house up on the mountain, so we quickly packed up a few items and headed to higher ground. Annie and Becca went up in the car with our friend Gai while I took the motor bike. Tons of traffic on these back roads made it slow going. While there was certainly some detectable fear and intensity of purpose in the air, there was no mass panic.
We left so suddenly, that there was no time to tell me where the Pi Ut’s home was actually located, so I wandered around on the mountain top where lots of folks were camping out, gathering at a few overlooks where you could see the beach. As far as I saw, there was nothing unusual to see; all the damage had actually already been done, but it was not visible from the mountain top.
Eventually I came across some neighbors who guided me to Pi Ut’s house where her family had gathered, along with a few of us farang. We managed to get the satellite TV up and running and while CNN had not yet picked up the story, BBC was beginning its coverage, focusing mostly on Sri Lanka and India.
After an hour or so, Annie wanted a few extra things for Becca, so I went down to our house. Though I had strict instructions from Annie to return up the mountain immediately - she knows that I always run out to see what’s going on, referring to me using the Thai phrase nak kao, meaning ‘reporter’ - I could not resist going down to the beach to see for myself what had happened.
Boats in the road, cars in the shops
It’s difficult to adequately describe the extent of the devastation. Boats were heaved up onto the roadway. Cars and trucks were jammed into the shops. Buses were overturned. Concrete structures were still standing, but largely gutted. Lesser structures, like wood and bamboo, were just flattened. Although I saw no bodies of victims at this point, it later became clear that many had been swept out to sea while others were still trapped in shops and vehicles, some of which were largely underground structures that filled with water.
Patong Beach is predominantly a tourist area, and the period between Christmas and New Year is the busiest time of the year, the so-called high-season. Much of the beach-front activity occurs in the evening. Had this wave hit 12 hours earlier or later, the beach road would have been filled with tuk-tuks and walking tourists while the restaurants and shops would have been completely filled with employees and customers. In that case, the loss of life could have been multiplied ten times.
As you can see, neither my loved ones nor I were directly affected by this disaster. In some sense, it may be comparable to how September 11 was perceived by people outside the immediate area, by, say, folks from Jersey or the Bronx. We feel the immediacy of it, we will certainly know people who died or who had friends and family who died, and there is no denying that this is a tragedy of major proportions, but it would be unreasonable to artificially amplify our own connection to it.
The news coverage naturally focuses on the part of the situation that is new: the deaths and the destruction. But it is important to realize that these immediate effects are limited to a thin slice of coastline. Move a few blocks in from the coast and the life proceeds largely as before. This is not to deny the enormity of the disaster in the affected areas; rather, it is just a reminder that the affected area represents a small slice of the overall geography.
How you can help
The following global agencies are involved in relief efforts here in Phuket: