Tsunamis and the Survivors’ Tell

A friend of the blog remarked, after watching Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, that the ending—in which the US is forced to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City as a “good faith” gesture so as to show the USSR that the bomb that hit Moscow was deployed in error—was devastating in a way that annihilation of the whole world by nuclear war somehow wouldn’t be.  It’s an effect made worse, he said, by ten quick scenes that capture New York City street life the second before the bomb hit.

I remembered that remark as I watched a documentary on the 2004 tsunami’s effects on Phuket, and I’ve been thinking ever since about different classes of disaster and how we tell them. The kind of disaster I have in mind isn’t nuclear. It’s large-scale, protracted, rife with survivors, and messy enough that it had to go mostly untelevised and was reconstructed in retrospect. In other words, if I’m not talking about nuclear war*, neither am I thinking about 9/11, an event that included both a bizarre specificity (people reporting from the building across the street) and a bleak absoluteness of result. Like the nuclear ending in Fail-Safe, it was also quick.  One of the strangest things about that day was how it shrugged off our definitions of disaster relief: millions of blood donations went unused but ashes hung over the city for weeks. We rushed to offer a liquid solution to a gaseous problem and had no access to the monumental change of phase that was really under way.

I’m interested in a different class of disaster—a disaster with a surfeit of survivors and an absence of agents. Such a disaster, without its US and USSR, produces acute narrative problems. Take the tsunami and its companion-piece, the earthquake. They make for addled storytelling because battle tropes don’t apply and heroism can’t swim. Good and evil sit marooned and watching from Orlando’s lunatic moon, alongside terrorists and bombers and civilians and countries, all waiting patiently for the casting call that will make them relevant or the event legible. They don’t, obviously. In a tsunami, the difference between up and down (or shore and land or vacation bungalow and fisherman’s hut) is academic.

Here’s how Ammianus, in his Res Gestae, described a tsunami and the earthquake preceding it on July 21, A.D. 365:

16. Slightly after daybreak, and heralded by a thick succession of fiercely shaken thunderbolts, the solidity of the whole earth was made to shake and shudder, and the sea was driven away, its waves were rolled back, and it disappeared, so that the abyss of the depths was uncovered and many-shaped varieties of sea-creatures were seen stuck in the slime; the great wastes of those valleys and mountains, which the very creation had dismissed beneath the vast whirlpools, at that moment, as it was given to be believed, looked up at the sun’s rays. 17. Many ships, then, were stranded as if on dry land, and people wandered at will about the paltry remains of the waters to collect fish and the like in their hands; then the roaring sea as if insulted by its repulse rises back in turn, and through the teeming shoals dashed itself violently on islands and extensive tracts of the mainland, and flattened innumerable buildings in towns or wherever they were found. Thus in the raging conflict of the elements, the face of the earth was changed to reveal wondrous sights. 18. For the mass of waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning, and with the tides whipped up to a height as they rushed back, some ships, after the anger of the watery element had grown old, were seen to have sunk, and the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down. 19. Other huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses, as happened at Alexandria, and others were hurled nearly two miles from the shore, like the Laconian vessel near the town of Methone which I saw when I passed by, yawning apart from long decay.

That last sentence shows astounding restraint. If confronted by a similar

Receding tsunami waters at Kata Noi Beach on 26 December 2004.

ship that had been deposited two miles inland by a tidal wave, I’d have a LOT more to say about it. I’d be inclined to stick a hand up it and make it explain, the way Jerome does in his Life of St. Hilarion, where he directly links the 365 tsunami to the death of Julian, who had died two years earlier:

At that time there was an earthquake over the whole world, following on the death of Julian, which caused the sea to burst its bounds, and left ships hanging on the edge of mountain steeps. It seemed as though God were threatening a second deluge, or all things were returning to original chaos. When the people of Epidaurus saw this, I mean the roaring waves and heaving waters and the swirling billows mountain-high dashing on the shore, fearing that what they saw had happened elsewhere might befall them and their town be utterly destroyed, they made their way to the old man [Hilarion], and as if preparing for a battle placed him on the shore.

After making the sign of the cross three times on the sand, he faced the sea, stretched out his hands, and no one would believe to what a height the swelling sea stood like a wall before him. It roared for a long time as if indignant at the barrier, then little by little sank to its level. Epidaurus and all the region roundabout tell the story to this day, and mothers teach their children to hand down the remembrance of it to posterity.

Sixteen hundred years later, in 1960, Hilarion’s miracle would be repeated in Chile by a group spearheaded by Raul Saez, who saved a hefty chunk of the country from flooding. Granted, the Great Chilean Earthquake wasn’t nuclear war, but it could have been, and for many who lived through the 1960 quake, that was their first thought:

José Argomedo was 22 years old and living on a farm outside Maullín, Chile, where he got news of the world from his radio. Early in May 1960, the big news was the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union-a Soviet missile had downed an American spy plane.

On May 18, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, suggested treating the United States like a cat that had stolen cream. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he said, “to take the American aggressors by the scruff of the neck also and give them a little shaking?”

A few days later, on the afternoon of May 22, while out riding his horse, Mr. Argomedo felt more than a little shaking. As the ground beneath him shook hard for several minutes, he was forced to get off his horse. Mr. Argomedo thought the Cold War had turned hot. However, like everyone else in the area of Maullín, Quenuir, and La Pasada, he was actually living through a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the largest ever measured.

That earthquake culminated in several landslides that blocked the outflow of Rinihue Lake, the lowest of a chain of lakes that receive a constant inflow from the Enco River. The blocked river (San Pedro) threatened to flood Chile’s oldest city, Valdivia, and every other town along the river in less than five hours. If the dam broke, things would be much, much worse.

To avoid the destruction of the city, several military units and hundreds of workers from ENDESA, CORFO, and MOP started an effort, called the Riñihuazo, to control the lake. Twenty-seven bulldozers were put into service, but they had severe difficulties moving in the mud near the dams, so dykes had to be constructed with shovels. A proposal by some US military to blow up the dams with missiles from an helicopter was rejected.

Chilean engineers fixed the problem.

Here, by the way, is a list of tips on how to survive a tsunami, courtesy of the US Geological Society:

  • Heed Natural Warnings
  • Heed Official Warning
  • Expect Many Waves
  • Head for High Ground and Stay There
  • Abandon Belongings
  • Don’t Count on the Roads
  • Climb a Tree
  • Climb on Something That Floats
  • Expect the Waves to Leave Debris
  • Expect the Quakes to Lower Coastal Land
  • Expect Company

Then there are the survivors of the 2005 tsunami, which is known variously as the Asian Tsunami or the Boxing Day Tsunami in what seems like a hokey reprise of other politically motivated nameoffs. (No victors here.) The documentary I saw focused on white, British survivors who’d been vacationing in Phuket when the wave hit. It struck me as a self-serving and insensitive lens, but the tsunami complicates the usual case for Oppression Olympics. There are things money can fix: the couple that was scuba-diving when the wave hit had the means to fix her pelvis, which snapped in two under the pressure, and his legs. But the woman whose seven-year-old daughter was torn from her arms when the wave broke through their bungalow lost her. I’ve scoured Youtube in vain for footage of that particular woman because her interview shocked me. Watching her speak you never suspected, not even for a moment, that the daughter would be gone by story’s end. That she was seemed to surprise her as much as it did me. It was astoundingly sad.

I did, however, find this footage of the only survivors’ account of the 1958 “Super Giant Tsunami” in Lituya Bay in Alaska, which ends with the older man’s boat deposited a good way up a mountain. The BBC tries desperately to illustrate with scary shots of turbulent water. The man is with his son, who was eight years old at the time, and remembers the weird things kids remember about events like those. The BBC’s visuals are utterly distracting. Understandable; it’s a documentary and they need some kind of visual, but their efforts to reproduce elements of the story are pathetic (at one point they show a big chain to illustrate the fact that there was a chain). The effect isn’t  “Super Giant;” it’s small. It’s much more interesting to listen to the details the teller chooses. This particular documentary feels weirdly like a struggle for literary power or narrative dominance.

I don’t know why. One guess? The first-person account is never not limited, but more often than not, literary power derives from ignoring your particular limitations and adopting a universal voice. Milton negotiates this by claiming he’s merely channeling God’s words. Dante sticks to a first-person account but loudly proclaims his debt to Virgil. The end of the amazing film “An Education” suffers, I think, because the final voiceover cancels out something appealingly omniscient. It’s interesting to think about an opposite case in which it’s the first-person account that carries authority.

That’s an incomplete answer, complicated in all kinds of ways, most significantly, to my mind, by Arko Datta, who took the iconic photograph for the 2005 tsunami of an Indian woman mourning a dead relative. The BBC reports on how he went and found her five years later. She’s become famous in the interim as a result of his photograph. She claims to remember him from the day he took the photo. (A day when she was prostrate on the sand mourning.) He talks about how he comes home every day and thanks God he’s still alive.

Neither half of this story adds up nicely. Fame messes with the schema and makes everyone just a touch more concerned with self than you’d hoped they’d be. She became too large while remaining mute, and he stopped photographing long enough to narrate his own subjective experience of the event in a way that highlights his good fortune. They overflow their parts in just the ways you hoped they wouldn’t.

Then there’s Michael Dobbs’ account for the Washington post, which is here. His readers take him to task for merely vacationing in a place where local residents suffered unmentionable hardships. His response to them is interesting, and the piece itself clearly suffers from a journalist’s double-vision. It’s distant, the way Ammianus might have written it: full of restraint and lodged two miles inland, even when the water’s swirling round.



*although Douglas Coupland’s “Survivor” does that pretty well, and in a similar region