A cubic yard of water weighs nearly a ton.
November 27, 2005 3:25 PM   Subscribe

The Day the Sea Came. The stories of six people caught up in last December's tsunami.
Maisara did not look back. She could hear an odd, ever-louder roar. But she never actually saw what she was running from. Only Anis, looking over her mother's left shoulder, beheld the oncoming water. "Mama, what is that?" the little girl kept yelling.
I know, it's the Times, it's long, it's old news, but it's absolutely riveting. Great reporting by Barry Bearak, and for this you need a reporter, not a novelist, because you can't make this stuff up. Part 1 (printer-friendly), Part 2 (printer), Part 3 (printer), Part 4 (printer).
posted by languagehat (25 comments total)
posted by elpapacito at 3:39 PM on November 27, 2005

And moving, appaling, frightening that it really happened.
posted by elpapacito at 4:15 PM on November 27, 2005

it's awesome stuff, I spent half the afternoon today reading it. great post, languagehat, this is very important, even vital. thanks.
posted by matteo at 4:21 PM on November 27, 2005

Its been such a tough year that last December seems like eons ago. I'm going to throw in my own semi-personal links:

One of my best friends was vacationing on a beach in Thailand when the Tsunami arrived. He and his girlfriend just barely made it out alive. He put up a mini-site about the event. I highly recommend his own gripping personal first-hand account.

He and that same girlfriend are getting married in Hong Kong next November. :)
posted by vacapinta at 4:23 PM on November 27, 2005

No need to apologize, this is a brand new, first-rate feature.
posted by dhartung at 4:29 PM on November 27, 2005

posted by stirfry at 5:03 PM on November 27, 2005

I find it strangely interesting that the Acehnese, whom I have generally seen as swamped by horror (even pre-tsunami), saw themselves as uniquely blessed.
posted by aramaic at 5:06 PM on November 27, 2005

I'm not nearly finished reading it yet, but it's well worth the time. It's a shocking and mind numbing tale of the 'worst case' brought home by an excellent naration of experiences. These are much more telling than the 60 second sound bites and 'how did that make you feel' hero of the day interviews in the tv media.
posted by tiamat at 5:47 PM on November 27, 2005

Heartbreaking and terrifying...
posted by pjern at 6:44 PM on November 27, 2005

Wow, vacapinta, that's some extraordinary luck your friend has.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:59 PM on November 27, 2005

One of the more interesting points was that the Aceh peace deal may have come about because both parties were shamed, possibly believing the violent conflict brought about God's wrath.

CD, I agree, but they also made some very smart split-second decisions.
posted by dhartung at 7:25 PM on November 27, 2005


Really, this does give me pause; 260,000 dead! Yikes! But NOLA only escaped that because our natural disaster gave us barely enough warning to run for our lives, in a way that had never worked any of the previous times we tried it. Start trying to draw conclusions about who God loves more and I will be strongly tempted to react violently.

Many of the scenes in the later sections are personally familiar -- whole extended families that have lost all their homes and possessions, the aid clusterfuck, the awkward half-steps to rebuilding. The odd feeling in the pit of your stomach as you look from the area that was spared over toward the area that was totaled.

I'm not a militant atheist and I'm normally tolerant of any religion that is tolerant of me, but this really underscores the self-destructive effects of religiosity. Shit happens, and when it does put blame where blame is due; blame the housing designs that didn't hold up, blame the warning system that wasn't there, blame the lack of education that made people wander out after the retreating sea instead of running, blame the crappy levees, blame the politicians who lined their pockets instead of doing things to protect you, but for FSM sake don't go blaming invisible sky beings and then wasting precious energy trying to appease them. ARRRRRRRGGGGHHH.
posted by localroger at 7:28 PM on November 27, 2005

Some waters are social.
posted by troutfishing at 7:29 PM on November 27, 2005

localroger, there are many explanations people use to validate their existence and deal with tragedy. Provided it isn't interfering with their survival (and in this case, it seems to be helping by providing comfort), what is wrong with a man who uses "invisible sky beings" to deal with his grief instead of "being at the wrong fucking place in the wrong fucking time"?
posted by schroedinger at 7:53 PM on November 27, 2005

Well, maybe because seeing the cause as a failure to please Allah will lead to more oppression of individuals, particularly women? Maybe because winking at stupidity leads to more stupidity? Maybe because a lack of critical thinking should never be seen as a social good?
posted by raysmj at 8:08 PM on November 27, 2005

Lack of education and abject poverty lead to the kind of unquestioning religous zeal referenced in the piece. Doesn't matter if you're part of the uneducated Islamic lower class in Indonesia or some nut job southern Baptist in the USA.

With that said - the NYT piece is really an amazing example of storytelling. Make sure to take a look at Taryn Simon's haunting portraits. If more newspapers did work 1/100th this powerful they might not be in the sorry shape they currently find themselves in.
posted by photoslob at 8:21 PM on November 27, 2005

Am I the only one who wants to grab these people by the neck and shake them while yelling YO GUYS IT WAS NOT ALLAH THAT DID THIS.

You know, I actually hesitated before posting this out of concern that some yahoo would use it as an excuse for yet another round of religion-bashing, but I figured anyone who made it all the way to the end would have more sense. Ah well.

But you know what? You've convinced me. I have seen the light! I now realize that if the people of Banda Aceh had only been poor, oppressed atheists, everyone would have behaved sensibly and no one would have died. Praise Nogod!

posted by languagehat at 5:19 AM on November 28, 2005

So languagehat, are you saing it was Allah that did it and it's a legitimate diversion of the survivors' energy to step up the oppression of women and the suppression of dat ole nasty alcohol?

Nobody can stop the tsunami or the hurricane. But when it has passed you can either devote your energy to fixing what has been swept away, or in suicidal navel-gazing. You don't have to be religious to sink into navel-gazing instead of picking up the pieces, but it certainly seems to help.

Incidentally, just to show this is not an anti-religion rant: Some of the most helpful folks in the aftermath of Katrina have been the protestant Christians -- not the big churches so much as the little, often fundamentalist ones with no big organizational associations. They have opened shelters, they have dispensed aid, and they haven't asked your religion first or waited for FEMA's permission to do any of it. And while those folks do have a bit of a "maybe God is punishing us" subtext going on, it isn't nearly as pervasive as what is portrayed in this article about Banda Aceh.
posted by localroger at 10:06 AM on November 28, 2005

localroger--did you not expect people living in a very religious area to tie their religious beliefs into their experiences? Should that crucial aspect of their lives have been eliminated from the article to make it more athiest-friendly? Perhaps the author should've lectured each person he interviewed on the merits of atheism.

You don't have to be religious to sink into navel-gazing instead of picking up the pieces, but it certainly seems to help.

This is idiotic. First, I could say the same about emo music and the goth movement. Should we ban them too? Second, I would love to see your proof that the religious seem more obsessed with "suicidal navel-gazing"--it has been my experience that it is their faith itself that inspires people to pick up the pieces and help others instead of sinking into depression. The way it inspires those Christian Protestants to come in and help, it inspires the Muslims to move on with their lives, aid reconstruction, and maintain hope for something better.

Religion may not be the BESTEST SOCIAL CONSTRUCT EVAR, but it is not the Satan-spawn you're making it out to be.
posted by schroedinger at 11:38 AM on November 28, 2005

schroedinger, you have me confused with some much more rabid atheist. Nowhere did I say religion was "satan-spawn." Hell, I'm the guy who damn near got laughed off of kuro5hin for daring to suggest the universe might not be entirely explainable by naturalistic interpretations.

But when you have been hit with a disaster and a hundred thousand peoples' first reaction is to say WHY OH WHY IS GOD PUNISHING ME, something is fucking wrong. This is not necessarily a problem with religion itself or with a particular religion, but it is certainly a very big problem with the way the particular Islamists of Banda Aceh responded to their misfortune.

I didn't say I want to shake them and say CONVERT TO MY MORE SENSIBLE BELIEF SYSTEM YOU LUNKHEAD. I didn't say we should ban their religion or any other wacky obsession like gothism.

I did say I wanted to shake them and say ALLAH DID NOT DO THIS TO YOU SO STOP FUCKING GROVELING AND WONDERING HOW YOU PISSED HIM OFF AND START DEALING WITH THE SITUATION. Because I'm telling you, history shows it is much easier to start pointing fingers at "witches" than it is to fix a real problem, and the double whammy is that while you're burning the "witches" the problem still isn't getting fixed.

As for religion helping you to get picking up the pieces I mentioned that myself w/r/t the local fundie Christians. Hey, we have a patina of moral decadence and a corrupt government too, but nobody is acting like that's why we got hit by the hurricane. And that is as it should be whether you're religious or not.
posted by localroger at 3:23 PM on November 28, 2005

localroger, I read the article and didn't find much "GROVELING AND WONDERING HOW YOU PISSED HIM OFF". I thought it was the stories of six people who managed to survive and are striving to rebuild their lives.

And your assertion that "nobody is acting like that's why we got hit by the hurricane" is false. Here is a page of Alternative theories regarding Hurricane Katrina which lists global warming, divine retribution and the Federal Government as potentially responsible parties.

Here is a link to an About poll, Do you think Hurricane Katrina could be God's way of punishing New Orleans for sin?





Not sure.


Total Votes: 119499

While the poll is surely not scientific, these quick results from a Google search would seem to indicate that your claim that "nobody is acting like that's why we got hit by the hurricane" is spurious.

And it's beside the point, the article was about six people who survived, lost almost everything and are trying to rebuild their lives. Would that we could all do as well as they have.
posted by notmtwain at 4:56 PM on November 28, 2005

And it's beside the point, the article was about six people who survived, lost almost everything and are trying to rebuild their lives.

Exactly. What depresses me is not that you think religion is unhelpful but that that was your first response to this long, moving article. It's like people who respond to WEB Du Bois's long, complicated, ultimately tragic life with "He became a communist!" Yeah, he did, at 92 or whatever. If that's all you can see, that says more about you than about him. And like schroedinger, I didn't see anything in the article that suggested their religion was hampering their attempts to rebuild their lives. That's baggage you brought with you when you read it.
posted by languagehat at 5:43 PM on November 28, 2005

Last couple of comments:

The author of the (exceptionally good) article went to Banda Aceh. He didn't take a poll. He spoke with the people and lived with them. That's one reason the article is so good. And he specifically mentions that nearly every single person he interviews thought it was God's punishment almost as soon as the wave passed, was still seriously worrying about it months later, and goes on for several paragraphs in the fourth part about how this mood has settled on the community.

I live in NOLA. I work all over the surrounding area. I didn't take a poll. I walk the streets and talk with people. And if you walk around NOLA looking for someone who expresses the kind of concern that every single person interviewed in the article does, you will have a long walk.

I didn't say the article wasn't good, or even that this was the most important thing about it. But frankly other than their increased death toll due to no evacuation, I am kind of at the yadda yadda yadda done that what's new point with regard to superlative natural disasters. What struck me about the account was what was different from my own experience.

And as for where is it in the article, it's everywhere. If you cant see it it's probably because you yourself find this attitude completely natural and you don't notice it any more than you notice the presence of air. And of course the several people I'm addressing this to all interpreted my very specific comment about a particular reaction as a slam on the idea of religion itself, which kind of says the same thing.

So let me reiterate: NEITHER ALLAH, JHVH, LORD KRISHNA, NOR THE FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER SENT EITHER THE TSYNAMI, THE HURRICANES, OR THE EARTHQUAKE. Period. End of story. And thinking they did, even for one moment, for whatever reason, is NOT comforting; it is self-destructively assigning the blame to yourself because you can't face the fact that something this awful might just have happened for NO GODDAMN REASON AT ALL.

And it is self-destructive, because people who think this way will be tempted to solve the (seemingly relatively simple) "cause" of the problem rather than the (much more difficult) problem itself. It's happened many times throughout history, and the article ends on an explicit note of worry that it is coming around in Banda Aceh.

So that, folks, is what I read and what bothered me. EOM.
posted by localroger at 6:23 PM on November 28, 2005

languagehat, I didn't finish this last night and had to come back today. I just wanted to be sure to thank you for this most compelling post. Also, thanks to you, too, vacapinta for sharing your friend's story. Riveting reads, indeed.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:14 PM on November 28, 2005

It took me a bit to get to reading these too. Thank you for sharing.
posted by safetyfork at 8:29 AM on November 30, 2005

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