A Break in the Peace and Quiet of Ko Phi Phi (Matt & Laura)
Jul 28, 2007
"There was an article in the paper a few days ago about the tsunami warning system. Locals don't believe the towers work, won't participate in drills" I explain to the couple in the neighbouring bungalow. "They don't think it works because they've never heard it go off, but there hasn't been a tsunami so why would it?" We shake our heads.
"I've never seen the tide this far out," I observe. "Must be the full moon."
Rocks jut from the turquoise blue water. A few powerboats lay beached on the sand. Then the alarm sounded. A long whine piercing the sounds of beach music and distant construction.
Everything feels like its moving in slow motion. The siren whine is louder now. People are standing, looking around, confused. Grabbing cell phones. I walk a few steps toward the beach, watching the woman who runs the convenience store beside our group of beach bungalows. She grabs her phone, looks confused, scared. The alarm seems louder. Then there's a voice, speaking in hollow, echoing tones over the loudspeaker. Saying something in Thai, over and over again, the siren still blaring. It has only been around ten seconds since the alarm began to sound.
Laura grabs our shoes from the deck, casting aside our flip-flops. Two young women nearby look confused, dazed. "What?" one of them struggles to form a question. "It's the tsunami warning. Let's go!" I tell them. And then everyone is running.
Laura is ahead of me. I see she has stopped at a corner, waiting for me. I don't want to run. There is time, I tell myself. Don't panic.
But everyone is panicking, running down the narrow road, men and women and I'm almost hit by a bicycle. People are yelling. There's screaming. My heart is pounding and I start to run because if I don't there's a good chance of being trampled. I run and keep Laura in front of me. I run because I'm scared this crowd will trample us. The fear and panic fills the air. Still the siren sounds, loud, repeating something in Thai over and over.
We reach the stairs to the evacuation point and start climbing. Luckily, we know exactly where to go. We'd walked the trail that morning for the view over the beach.
People are moving more slowly now. Some are stopping, unsure of what to do. We're walking uphill past the cluttered, overgrown clearing filled with lumber that is the evacuation site. Up to the first viewpoint, now filled with tourists. Up further to where we know there is a better view. Sweaty, hearts pounding, we arrive at the highest point overlooking the beach. The siren still whines, the voice still echoes over the town. We watch and wait.
Then there's a click, the siren stops for a moment, and a vaguely mechanical voice echoes ominously over the island: "There has been an earthquake in the sea. A tsunami is expected." Laura looks at me, her hair standing up on her arms, then looks back at the crystalline blue ocean below. The message is being repeated in German now, "Achtung! Achtung!" blaring from the distant towers. A large man turns, starts to run downhill. A younger man follows. I imagine his family is somewhere below, somewhere else. A middle-aged Thai woman sits behind us, crying. Her eyes look so scared. A younger Thai woman fans her. Two young tourists sit nearby; one hugs her. Elsewhere, couples huddle together. We all sit together, some silent, others talking through their fear and adreniline. We sit, watch the ocean, and wait.
My thoughts return to when I was living in Calgary and my apartment building caught on fire. To when I stood outside on the sidewalk for an hour waiting for the flames to finally move to my apartment. And then they did.
We watch the beach as a lone kayak paddles in from the sea. Its bright yellow against the blue ocean. I imagine their fear as they realize the siren they're hearing is the tsunami warning alarm. As they realize the beach is empty and they're alone paddling toward shore. Then, incredibly, we watch the man who rents the kayaks walk slowly toward them across the sand. He takes the kayak and they walk away. He has stayed on the beach to tend his kayaks despite the alarm.
A half hour passes. Then, abruptly, the alarm stops. The sudden quiet is strange, foreboding. A question moves silently through the waiting crowd: what does it mean? why did it stop? We wait. Worry.
Rumours begin to circulate. There was an earthquake rated 8.5 in the Andaman Sea. There was an earthquake in Indonesia so the tsunami will hit the east coast of Thailand and we're safe. There was no earthquake. No one knows what is going on. People are on cellphones to their friends. A Thai man who runs a nearby store is watching a soap opera on television. A tourist asks him to change the channel to the news. He refuses. We wait.
An hour passes. We see people on the beach. One is in the water. There's a child running across the sand. There are couples walking hand in hand. They are all distant specks against the sand.
A Thai woman holds up her cell phone to the crowd. I can hear a voice but the words are too distant. She sees me, approaches, holds it to my ear. The person is speaking with a Thai accent and is struggling to speak English. It sounds like they are trying to read something. I hear the words "tower", "normal", "problem", "broken", "alarm". She looks at me, clearly hoping that I've been reassured. "What did they say?" a man asks me. It feels like the entire group of tourists is looking at me for an answer. "I just heard a few words" I explain, then repeat them to the group. I still don't know what to do. There are now only tourists on the hilltop. The thai people have left.
The sun is setting a brilliant red and orange streaked with cloud. We might as well enjoy the sunset. Some take out their cameras and snap photos of the setting sun.
Chris and Kylie, an Australian couple from our neighbouring bungalow have joined us. Chris has text-messaged his friend in Australia, asking him to check the news who doesn't find anything on the internet. No earthquakes. Nothing. We ask him to check again and debate what to do. "We should start down," I suggest. "We have a bigger risk from falling down the steep stairs in the dark, I think". So we go.
Laura and I make our way down the hill quickly. Our neighbours fall behind. We wait for a while, then continue on. A British woman is frightened walking down the steep stairs in the dark in her flipflops. I hold her hand to help her down. We return to tourists wandering the streets. Shops are open. Yet the town has a quiet, subdued, somber feeling. We see tourists sitting in the internet cafes. If an earthquake had happened, they wouldn't be sitting there. It must be okay. We return to our bungalow, shower, and go for dinner.
It was a problem with the warning system, it turns out. There are conflicting stories of whether it was a short circuit or a computer problem. We learn this from locals and via rumours. There is nothing in the newspaper and no announcements are made. Later, we hear that the alarms went off in two other towns as well.
We return from dinner late that night. It is dark as we walk back to our bungalow in the dark. Beneath a thatched bamboo shelter is Chris and Kylie. They just got down from the hill, they tell us. They waited there, not knowing what to do, and eventually came down. They were there for over four hours and no one came to tell them it was safe to return.
I wouldn't be surprised if someone had been injured in the evacuation. Or killed. The panicked crowd darting through narrow streets, most not knowing where to go, running and afraid, had that potential. People thought they were running for their lives.
This island was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Yet a sign showing the evacuation routes lays in the grass, fallen down and ignored. The evacuation route signs don't show where to go, just the general direction. Chris and Kylie walked for an hour through the jungle before joining us. They didn't know where to go. Most disturbing is that the only way people were able to get any information about what was going on was by phoning friends and family in distant countries. There was no information, no communication, no plan. Worse still, I have no doubt that the next time the siren sounds, fewer people will evacuate. No one thinks it works. Despite the spending, despite the lives lost, I doubt this place is any more prepared for the next tsunami.
We discover later that the narrow, low-lying land between the two beaches of Ko Phi Phi was banned for any development after the tsunami. It is just too vulnerable. Now, three years later, development continues and the land is covered with restaurants, hotels, and shops. Despite being told not to build, being told it will be destroyed again, the construction continued. Now its almost the way it was. Except that when the alarm sounds, fewer and fewer people will listen.
It had been a wonderful relaxing time on Ko Phi Phi. The day after the false alarm, there were more beach huts vacant than usual. Walking to lunch, we passed a man speaking into a loudspeaker followed, a short distance behind, by the first policeman we'd seen on Ko Phi Phi. We wondered what was being said.
We will not leave Ko Phi Phi, as many others clearly do. We will stay, enjoy some more time at the beach, perhaps celebrate my birthday. But the sound of the siren echoing over the beach will always remain in our memories.
I will never forget Kylie's face and the way she looks at me when the siren sounds. "What is THAT?" she says. We all listen for 10 seconds to the undulating whine of the siren before it registers: this is the tsunami system we had just been talking about. We can't believe it. "Let's get out of here" Kyle says as she jumps up. I leap out of my flip-flops and grab my Teva sandals from our neighbouring bungalow porch. Thankfully we hadn't got around to unlocking our door yet, so I don't need to worry about shutting everything up; we had arrived back home and started chatting with Kyle and Chris on their porch. Matt is looking at the bungalow manager who is standing dumbstruck with a cell phone in her hand. I grab my purse and wallet and retrieve Matt's Tevas from the porch and lay them out for him. I know we will need decent shoes to climb the steps up to the safety zone. Coincidentally, Matt and I had ventured along the Tsunami Evacuation Route this very morning. We had followed the blue and white signs that depict a big wave and a small person running uphill. We had climbed the over 400 steps, sweating profusely, hearts beating, showing us how out of shape we have become since Nepal!
As the siren wails, I take comfort knowing exactly where to go. With sandals on, I stand by the corner of the bungalow watching Matt putting his shoes on. We had discussed briefly one day that if we did have to escape an oncoming Tsunami (as if - ha ha ha), would it be best to hold hands to stay together? Matt had said that it would be best to simply keep me in front of him. So, as I begin to leave the beach area, I glance back to make sure he is behind me. I see him round the corner of Chris' bungalow, so I keep running. At the next corner, a short distance away, I turn again and see him, a head taller than everyone else. The crowd has grown behind me - a group of people with both confusion and alarm written across their faces. As I round the corner, I see a young man on a cell phone - "they are telling everyone to run" he explains to someone. I wonder why he isn't running as I pass him. Matt is now right behind me telling me we don't need to run and I think the same thing as we have lots of time before any wave is going to hit. Last time it was at least an hour from the time of the earthquake to the actual wave. But the momentum of the crowd behind us doesn't leave us much option but to keep moving in the flow of the rush.
We reach the stairs and people slow down to begin the walk up. I immediately feel safe as with each step I go higher and higher from the beach. We climb all the way up and I barely remember the steps, my adrenaline pumping. We get to the viewpoint and see a cluster of travelers and some locals. We sit on a rock and wait. We see the beach clearing of people and wonder where Kyle and Chris are. I haven't seen Kylie since the first corner we turned and Chris disappeared as soon as the siren went off.
I decide to buy water from the snack shop because if we are going to be here for awhile, they may run out. We listen to the Thai voice over the loudspeaker from the warning tower, but have no idea what it is saying. I look to the local people in hopes of a translation, but blank stares look back and one woman's tear-stained cheeks make me look away. Her fear is palpable. Then an English voice begins and the crowd shushes one another, eager for an explanation: "There has been an earthquake in the sea. A Tsunami is expected". I get chills and goosebumps appear on my arms. Holy crap, this is really happening. I look over the view of the white-sand beach and think "I'm really going to see this." I'm not thinking about our stuff, but then Matt and I talk about how everything we have is either in our bungalow or in the safe in the minimart. Oh well, what can we do now? The rumours of what has actually happening begin to fly: there has been an 8.3 earthquake in the Andaman Sea; there has been an earthquake in Indonesia and Thailand's other coast is in danger. Westerners on cell phones appear to be relaying this information from their friends and families. But then the siren stops. What does this mean? No one knows what to do. We watch some people returning to the beach. I watch a tourist scanning the horizon with his large binoculars. Some people begin to head down. By then, Kylie and Chris have appeared and Chris has emailed a friend in Australia to ask if there had been any earthquakes reported. All appears to be clear. We decide to watch the sunset and by then 3 hours have passed so it is safe to head down.
At our bungalow, I search for my flip-flops and I can't see them. Then I look over at Chris' bungalow and see my shoes sitting exactly where I left them, by his porch steps, when I leapt out of them several hours ago.