Asian Tsunami Kills 12,300, Many More Homeless
COLOMBO - More than 12,300 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless after a powerful undersea earthquake unleashed giant tsunami waves that crashed into the coasts of south and southeast Asia.
The 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra early on Sunday was the biggest in 40 years.
It triggered waves that reared up into walls of water as high as 10 meters (30 feet) as they hit coastlines in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.
Aid agencies rushed staff, equipment and money to the region, warning that bodies rotting in the water were already beginning to threaten the water supply for survivors.
Rescue workers also spoke of bodies still caught up on trees after being flung inland by the waves.
"I just couldn't believe what was happening before my eyes," Boree Carlsson said from a hotel in the Thai resort of Phuket.
"As I was standing there, a car actually floated into the lobby and overturned because the current was so strong," said the 45-year-old Swede.
"I heard an eerie sound that I have never heard before. It was a high pitched sound followed by a deafening roar," said a 55-year-old Indian fishermen who gave his name as Chellappa.
"I told everyone to run for their life."
In Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, one official said nearly 4,500 people had died.
The worst affected area was Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, where 3,000 were killed. More than 200 prisoners escaped from a jail when the tsunami knocked down its walls.
In Sri Lanka, the death toll also reached 4,500 and 1 million people, or 5 percent of its population, were affected.
It was the worst natural disaster to hit Sri Lanka.
Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans sheltered in schools and temples overnight, and officials expected the death toll to rise further once rescuers resumed searches after daybreak.
In southern India, where at least 3,000 were estimated to have died, beaches were littered with submerged cars and wrecked boats. Shanties on the coast were under water.
Thai government officials said at least 392 bodies had been retrieved and they expected the final toll to approach 1,000.
NO WARNING SYSTEM
In Los Angeles, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said U.S. officials who detected the undersea quake tried frantically to get a warning out about the tsunami.
But there was no official alert system in the region, said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Honolulu.
"It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get ... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia," he said. "You can walk inland for 15 minutes to get to a safe area."
"We tried to do what we could," he said. "We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."
The earthquake, of magnitude 8.9 as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey, struck at 7:59 a.m. (1959 EST). It was the world's biggest since 1964, said Julie Martinez at the USGS.
The tsunami was so powerful it smashed boats and flooded areas along the east African coast, 3,728 miles away.
In the Maldives, where thousands of foreign visitors were holidaying in the beach paradise, damage appeared to be significantly more limited, according to initial reports.
Twenty-eight people were estimated to have died in Malaysia and 10 in Myanmar.
SCALE OF DISASTER NOT YET KNOWN
Aid agencies said with communications cut to remote areas, it was impossible to assess the full scale of the disaster.
The Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was seeking 7.5 million Swiss francs ($6.5 million) for emergency aid funding.
The United States said it would offer "all appropriate assistance," while the European Union pledged an initial three million euros ($4 million).
Experts said the top five areas to be addressed were water, sanitation, food, shelter and health.
"We've had reports already from the south of India of bodies rotting where they have fallen and that will immediately affect the water supply especially for the most impoverished people," Christian Aid emergency officer Dominic Nutt said.
A tsunami, a Japanese word that translates as "harbor wave," is usually caused by a sudden rise or fall of part of the earth's crust under or near the ocean.
It is not a single wave, but a series of waves that can travel across the ocean at speeds of more than 500 miles an hour. As the tsunami enters the shallows of coastlines in its path, its velocity slows but its height increases.
A tsunami that is just a few centimeters or meters high from trough to crest can rear up to heights of 100 to 150 feet as it hits the shore, striking with devastating force.