Wed, Mar 02, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Oral history saved islanders from tsunami

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE People on an island nearest to the Dec. 26 quake's epicenter survived the tsunami thanks to stories that had been passed down for generations


A motorcycle and driver get a ride across an inlet on a makeshift ferry last Friday on Simeulue Island.


The ground shook so hard, people couldn't stand up when the massive earthquake rattled this remote Indonesian island -- the closest inhabited land to the epicenter of the devastating temblor.

But, unlike the hundreds of thousands of others who thought the worst was over when the shuddering stopped, the islanders remembered their grandparents' warnings and fled to higher ground in fear of giant waves known locally as semong.

Within 30 minutes, Simeulue became the first coastline in the world to experience the awesome force of the Dec. 26 tsunami. But only seven of the island's 75,000 people died, thanks to the stories passed down over the generations.

"After the earthquake, I looked for the water to suck out," said Kiro, 50, who like many Indonesians uses one name. "I remember the story of the semong and I ran to the hill."

Simeulue's northern coast is about 60km from the spot where the magnitude-9.0 earthquake shifted the ocean floor along a fault line west of Sumatra Island with enough force to send waves racing across the Indian Ocean.

Waves as high as 10m smacked ashore here, but most people had fled because of the stories about the semong that killed thousands in 1907.

"Everyone ran to the hills," said Randa Wilkinson of the aid agency Save the Children. "They took bicycles and motorbikes and wheelbarrows and piled the kids in whatever they could get them in."

Suhardin, 33, said that when the quake struck he didn't think about his grandmother's stories about the 1907 disaster because nothing happened when another big temblor shook the island three years ago. It was only when a man from another village ran past shouting "Semong! Semong!" that Suhardin and others from Laayon village fled.

The earthquake's power is visible all along Simeulue's picturesque coast. Huge cracks and gashes scar the remains of thick concrete walls that once supported village mosques, bridges lie crumbled in streams running to the ocean and deep fissures split roadways.

The island's northern shore took a direct hit from the waves, which left little standing. Along the western shore, the tsunami spared some villages and destroyed others, leaving a path of snapped palm trees, flattened houses and power poles dangling over roads.

The earthquake tipped the island up 1.2m on one side, exposing rugged blocks of coral reef along parts of the northern coast, said Taufik, an Indonesian official who surveyed the island for the government's meteorological and geophysical agency.

Palm trees that once shaded white-sand beaches are now partially submerged on the southern end of the island, which sank 30cm.

"You can't imagine this and only seven people died," he said. "It's amazing."

He agreed the island's oral history saved countless lives, but noted its lush hills are close to the coast, allowing people to get to safety. In many other places with broader coastal plains, people had few places to run.

Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean and many people in the 11 countries hit by the waves did not know about their potential to swallow tens of thousands of lives in seconds. When the inrushing waves sucked shallow coastal waters out to sea, many people stood on beaches watching or collecting fish flopping on the sand instead of fleeing.

On Simeulue's western coast, survivors stood helplessly on hillsides looking down on the wall of water sweeping entire villages out to sea.

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