How many miles can a tsunami travel?

Tsunami in Southeast Asia : The island's memory

The old man sits on the terrace of his house and looks out onto the street. The sun conjures up golden light in the dust. A child, his grandson, crouches on his knees. The old man is satisfied because he knows something for sure: that nature cannot harm them. There was only proof of this the day before. The earth shook, as it did almost every day around here. She trembled just a tiny bit, barely noticeable, and what was the child doing? It jumped up and ran, ran towards the mountains.

That's how they taught him, that's how everyone has been taught for more than 100 years on Simeulue, an Indonesian island, 2310 square kilometers, twice the size of Rügen, 150 kilometers from Sumatra. Therefore, only seven people died here when the wave hit on December 26, 2004. And that's why they sometimes giggle a little at the effort that the tsunami early warning system has been doing in the Southeast Pacific to this day: the buoy and sensor networks, the many measuring stations for which some land still had to be bought, the newly built house for the Indonesian one Agency for meteorology, climatology and geophysics, the warning center in Jakarta, twelve floors high, the conferences, planning, training courses, the necessary changes to the law, the real-time evaluation software that the geological research institute in Potsdam developed in-house and in more than 100 institutions in 40 countries awarded, the many air miles that were covered between Germany and Indonesia, all the manpower, all the money. The project is still not finished, the German participation has just been extended until March 2011, then everything is to be handed over to Indonesia.

The old man with the papyrus skin, his name is Sutan Ruswin, would not have been afraid of further catastrophes even without all of this. "What should happen? You westerners need all the expensive warning systems, we have our old knowledge. ”Whereby the westerners are the ones who trust the technology and“ we ”are the traditionalists from the village, the ones who believe the ancients. Ruswin is sitting in a large wooden armchair in which he is about to disappear. His eyes shine. His huge ears wiggle to the beat of his words as he recounts the legend that the people on his island tell.

They say: In the hot maw of the earth lurks a beast that tugs at the festivals of the world, screams and shakes, warning and angry. You can hear her because she speaks to people. And if you are attentive and learn their language, you can escape their curses. The beast was given a name: Semong - great wave after the quake. That was in 1907.

At that time, a 35 meter high wave took more than 5,000 people into the open sea and devoured them there. Simeulue swore they would never forget that. The Semong has entered the myths and narrative traditions of Simeulue because it was clear to everyone that one day he would come back. The stories are given to toddlers like breast milk: If the world quakes and the water disappears, then leave your house and run into the mountains.

So they were prepared when the Semong returned shortly before nine o'clock on the morning of December 26, 2004, when the sea floor trembled and the first houses fell to the ground where they are still today. Then the water withdrew and the residents fled to the mountains. 30 minutes later, the monster wave reached the sun-drenched bays of Simeulues, it stole the white sandy beaches, the houses and rice fields from the country, but not the inhabitants.

The tsunami killed more than 150,000 people in Indonesia alone. 230,000 across Southeast Asia. On Simeulue, on the other hand, which is only a few kilometers from the epicenter of the seaquake, only the seven fishermen who were hauling in their nets at sea died.

"If only they had kept the old stories alive everywhere," says Sutan Ruswin. “So many lives could have been saved.” Instead, many Indonesians ran to where the sea was just a moment ago. They called their families and friends over by mobile phone to collect the wriggling fish in the mud or to admire the natural spectacle. When the first wave thundered on the horizon, they ran far too late in the opposite direction and were buried under the water towers.

Tsunamis are not unusual in this part of the world, Indonesia and the Philippines are located on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. It happens that the earth shakes every day. Sometimes so strong that the mosque minarets sway. Then again so weak that small rings spread out in the rain barrels behind the houses, as if a pebble had plopped onto the surface of the water. According to the geological research institute, the new early warning system has registered eight earthquakes that triggered waves since it was put into operation. Mostly very small waves, none of national importance. But there was also one: in 1907 the one, and before that, on August 27, 1883, the Krakatau volcano exploded, shattered into millions of pieces and hurled a 40 meter high wave against the coasts of Java and Sumatra. The force was so strong that it was felt four time zones to the west. In the Bay of Biscay, 17,000 kilometers away, the water level rose by two centimeters. The air pressure waves could also be felt around the globe for days.

When the Semong awoke in 2004, the earth swayed like a water bed, creating deep cracks in Sutan Ruswin's living room. Panic broke out in the island's capital, Sinabang. People ran through the dusty streets shouting just one word: “Semong! Semong! ”Women pulled their children to their chests and fled to the mountains. Men hurriedly loaded wooden carts with water bottles and food. At this time, as he did every morning, Ruswin was sitting on the terrace of a coffee house, sipping sweet tea and eating pieces of dough. He had dreaded this moment for eight decades. “I knew what to do. But I did exactly the opposite, ”he says, looking like a schoolboy who has screwed up something and is proud of it.

Curiosity drove him to the port. Because he had to know if the old stories were true, he says. Because he was gripped by the desire to research. Because in the old legends it is handed down that the water heats up during an earthquake. The hotter, the closer to the epicenter. The sea drained as if someone had pulled a plug out there in the Indian Ocean. Sutan Ruswin put his hands in the shallow water and was disappointed. “The water was as warm as ever,” he says. So the mountain must have exploded far away.

A little meekly, he adds that his wife hadn't spoken to him for days because instead of going to the mountains, he first ran to the sea. What he didn't know: Simeulue was the island that was closest to the epicenter of the quake. The retreating water had united to form a huge wall of water and was rolling towards the island for a long time.

Sutan Ruswin, his family and the other refugees stayed in the mountains for a week. Drank the dew from plant leaves, cooked rice with bananas or suckled cocoa pods. At night they slept on bamboo mats in the open air and lost battles against the myriads of mosquitoes that sucked their blood. Then they returned to Sinabang to see what nature had left them. There was water in the streets, mud in the houses.

The sun creeps over the walls of the houses. Cats have perched on ledges and doze sleepily in the morning sun. Wisps of cloud drift under the sky. A generator is humming somewhere. Sutan Ruswin is sitting in front of a cup of sweet tea. “Our knowledge saved us. We have passed it on for almost 100 years and waited for the wave, ”he says and talks about the disaster exercises in schools. “People practice there over and over again. So that the children know what to do in the event of an earthquake. ”He speaks of the scouts who watched the water in the harbor after each tremor and of the imam who never tired of reminding of the old stories in his prayers.

Just three months later, the earth shook again. On March 29, 2005, the stone-built houses sank into the ground like ships in a stormy sea. Their corrugated iron roofs now crouch on the ground like huge mushrooms. People ran back into the mountains and waited for the semong. That didn't come. But collapsing walls killed 19 islanders and most of the places ceased to exist. And therefore what oppresses Sutan Ruswin is, above all, the future. The island's infrastructure was largely destroyed, and it still is today. Schools, broken hospitals, collapsed bridges that lie in streams. Wires dangle like old clotheslines from wooden power poles. Thick cracks run through the few paved road sections, like scars on the face of a prize fighter. Water buffaloes ruminate on grass in salty rice fields.

Where the Krakatau volcano stood until its gigantic explosion, a volcanic island has formed again over the years, which continues to grow through constant activity. Some say that the islanders are not aware of the danger, that they don't know enough about seismology, geology, meteorology. But maybe they also trust in the stories of the ancients, in the knowledge of the islands.

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