A Day of Devastation

Editorial

New York Times

December 27, 2004

The location of yesterday's devastating earthquake came as no surprise. Its epicenter lay just off the western tip of Sumatra in one of the most geologically violent regions on the planet, where two of the plates that make up the earth's surface collide. The tremor was the fourth most powerful quake in the past hundred years, and early estimates put the death toll at 13,000, a number that is likely to be revised sharply upward in the days to come. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless.

Most of the deaths were caused by tsunamis, enormous walls of water generated by the earth's sudden movement and flung outward through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The force of an earthquake in the midst of a landmass is damped by the land itself, which is why most of the damage occurs near the epicenter. But this earthquake's epicenter lay under water, which carries the energy of the quake hundreds of miles, until the tsunamis it generates crash onto shore.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing the classic signs of a tsunami just before disaster struck. The water receded abruptly from land and then rose in a 40-foot wall, literally sweeping beaches clean from Thailand to India and Sri Lanka, which suffered the worst damage.

The immediate destruction was bad enough. But for at least the next few days the sea will be returning the bodies and the debris it swept away, raising the risk of disease. Finding higher ground may have saved lives in some places, but in many of the islands and low-lying coastal areas, there was no higher ground to seek. The tsunamis are a reminder of how many people in this part of the world live nearly at sea level.

It's instinctive in humans to search for the meaning of an event like this, once shock and grief have begun to subside. And there will be plenty of meanings to find in the ways that humans reacted as this disaster struck and in its aftermath as the relief effort begins. But except for our obligations to help the victims in any way we can, the underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth's surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them. Whenever those forces punctuate human history, they do so tragically. They demonstrate, geologically speaking, how ephemeral our presence is.