15 years after tsunami, painful memories endure, Thailand

by Antoni Uni December. 24, 2019 62 views

PHUKET: Although 15 years have passed since the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed almost a quarter of a million lives, memories of that day still haunt many people on Thailand's Andaman Coast who were touched by the tragedy.

Before sunset on Kamala Beach, one of the popular beaches in Phuket province, Orapin Songserm, a 61-year-old massage therapist, is starting to pack up after finishing a massage. She has worked here everyday since before the tsunami struck on Dec 26, 2004.

Despite the vivid memories she has of all that was taken from her that fateful day, Ms Orapin still finds herself working on the beach, saying she has to earn a living and does not know where she would go if she left the place of her birth.

She lost a total of 10 loved ones in the disaster, including her husband, mother and father.

"Dec 26 is always on my mind. I ran away to the mountains just before the tsunami came, but after the wave destroyed everything, I immediately ran back to the beach to find my parents and husband, but found no one," she recalled.

In addition to numerous dead bodies, she found many injured tourists whom she helped to reach safety, she said.

"I tried searching for my parents and husband, but everything was damaged. I couldn't recognise where my home was, my parents, it was horrible. I just miss them so much, but I couldn't even hear their last words," Ms Orapin said, wiping away tears.

She said she learned from the experience the importance of always being aware of the sea. She now takes part in community efforts to prepare for a tidal wave in which they learn how to react and help each other during a crisis.

Asked if she fears another tsunami striking Phuket, Ms Orapin said while some anxiety toward the ocean still lingers, it is pointless to worry as she has to earn a living and so continues to ply her trade on the beach.

She now lives inland, about 5km from the beach as her daughter also worries about an unexpected incident in the future.

At the time of the disaster, Vilawan Sukphan, a 51-year-old chef, lived on Bangsak Beach in Phang Nga province, which was the hardest hit of the six Thai provinces bordering the Andaman coast. She lost 27 relatives including her sister, brother in law and nieces, as well as her family's restaurant business.

"My sister, her husband, and their daughter were killed, leaving behind her son for me to take care of until now," she said while looking at the calm sea.

She had to undergo counselling for depression for a few years after the tsunami, but now Ms Vilawan points out that she was able to learn many things from the calamity.

"I learned to help myself and now am more generous with others than I used to be. When I am busy, I may forget about the incident, but deep in my mind, the memory never fades. It taught me many lessons to live with caution in every breath as an unexpected incident can occur anytime," she said.

At the tsunami victim permanent shelter in Phang Nga province, Suwat Rattakul, 45, sits in the basement and looks outside with no focus. He lost both his young son and daughter when the tsunami swept away his house on Pakarang beach.

"I built a small resort on the beach. It was scheduled to be completed only two months after the tsunami hit. I borrowed some money from the bank by putting up my land as collateral. Unfortunately, the tsunami washed away my kids, my business, leaving only my life and heartbroken wife," he said.

Nowadays Mr Suwat works as bartender for a restaurant. He says although he lost his children, he still has to live.

Prayul Jongkraichak, a 52-year-old fisherman in the village of Ban Nam Khem, which suffered a high death toll, said people have learnt about prevention measures and set up systems to keep safe.

The experience of surviving the tsunami encouraged him to become a volunteer for the village, sounding an alarm for people living along the coast.

With the warning system and the government's tsunami monitoring system, people in the coastal area can sleep soundly at night, knowing they will be alerted if something happens, he explains.

So far, Thailand has two buoys used to transmit tsunami warning data, located 300km and 900km from the coast.

Pannathat Secvisad, director of the Protection and Operations Section under the Center for Protection and Mitigation, 18th District, Phuket, said the early-warning system is tested every Wednesday to warn people through 19 towers in Phuket.

Under a collaboration among government agencies, local communities have to practice preparations for a tsunami and evacuation several times a year.

Warning and evacuation route signs have been installed along the coast and the beach to warn people and tourists. Whenever something happens, the warning signal and announcement will be made instantaneously to the beach and surrounding areas to evacuate people. Shelters and evacuation routes have been prepared in six provinces, especially Phuket.

In Thailand, the tsunami killed 5,395 people and injured 8,457 others, while more than 2,000 were never found. It also destroyed thousands of houses and hundreds of hotels and resorts, leading to widespread homelessness and an adverse effect on the tourism industry and economy.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Phuket Office, the number of tourists to Phuket dramatically shrank from 4.79 million in 2004 to 2.51 million in 2005.

However, visitor numbers recovered to 4.49 million in 2006 and continue to grow, reaching 14.4 million in 2018.


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