Friday, December 26, 2014

A 10 year reflection on the anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Around the world, in both public and private moments, individuals, families and communities are stopping to remember the impact of an earthquake that produced a tsunami that reached, in some places, over 100 feet (30+ meters).

Ten years ago, I was living in Singapore, and found myself on a beach in Phuket, Thailand when the disaster hit. Today, my life has placed me in Sydney, Australia.

Like many survivors or families of individuals lost in the tsunami, for the last months, I knew the ten year anniversary was coming. It is one more year than nine. One year less than eleven. But the number ten seems to be a number that if far enough away from 2004 that it requires you check in to see how you are feeling about a frightening and sad anniversary.

Over the last week, I have spent time being interviewed by newspapers and making television appearances as a “spokesperson” for survivors. No one has asked the question. But I am sure some must wonder. “Rick, it is ten years later. Why don’t you move on?” They don’t dare ask it in the interviews. But many ask that related question to find out, “Are you still suffering from the loss?”

December 26, 2014 "Sunrise" Channel 7 interview of Rick Von Feldt
on the 2014 Tsunami, Sydney Australia

For survivors that lost loved ones – a son or daughter – a brother – a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse – the answer will always be, “Of course I suffer.” Anniversaries remind individuals of the loss of others – but also the horrific seconds – minutes and hours during the day and days following of the tsunami.

For other survivors, like myself, who happened to get a lucky break that day, we reflect on what could have been. But as many tell me, the goal is to put it in the past – and move on. We were lucky enough to have survived. Why keep dwelling on what might have been?

For me, writing and providing a site for reading helps two different people. With the tsunami now really being a part of history (it is amazing to me that it is already 10 years ago!), I want to keep the stories alive of survivors for others to read about. Every day, close to 500 people read this site. It might be only for a minute. Others write to me and tell me they read the first story, and go on to read story after story, drawn in to the drama of life and survival. One of my favorite uses of the website is when entire school classes choose to study the tsunami. It might be for a literature class – and they read about the tsunami. Other times, it is a science project and they want to learn about the science behind the tsunami. Either way – the stumble upon the internet of these stories – and it suddenly becomes real. Real people. Real challenge. Real horror. Real loss. And real survival.

Three weeks ago, a school librarian in Knoxville, Tennessee wrote and asked if I would be interested in speaking to a class about my experiences with the tsunami. When possible, I always say yes to any school type project. Once the teacher announced the project, other teachers suddenly wanted to participate. By the time my actual Skype call happened, the event was broadcast via televisions to every classroom in the school. The discussion and interview lasted nearly 30 minutes. Later, the librarian wrote and said that the discussion made a human impact on how kids understood what really happened.

Each survivor – each family member or friend that lost someone – deals with the horror, memory and loss in different ways. For me – I write, and represent the story of survivors.

Each of also has our own challenge that we must also overcome.

My journey to Phuket in 2004 was to be near the ocean. Born in the middle of America, I was not privileged to live near the water growing up. But after seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time as a young teenager, I was hooked by the sound – the site and the life giving as well as destructive nature of the ocean.

Since then, beaches, sunsets over beaches and water draws me to their edge. Like so many, the tsunami, created this dramatic mixed emotion for me. I wanted to be near the beach – but in doing so, it also created an anxiety
Over the last ten years, I have returned to the ocean. I have convinced myself that I will be ok on those visits. I always know where the tsunami evacuation routes are. I am conscious of the highest spots around me. Friends or family traveling with me won’t see me doing this. It’s my own small ritual. But it is on my mind.

When walking on beaches, low tides scare me. In all honest, I don’t quite believe them.
For me, in 2004, the tsunami started with what appeared to be a low tide. It got lower and lower. But few people stopped and said, “When does it cross over from low tide to a tsunami withdraw?” Most didn't – and many paid the price for it.

For the last ten years, one of my goals is to sleep in a cabin on the beach. I have not been able to do that. During the day, when I can see the water and the beach – I always feel as if I am in control. I can run. I can climb a tree. I can see the low tide getting lower – and make the choice to scream and shout to everyone to “get off the beach – a tsunami is coming” which I have done in my dreams and nightmare countless times over the years.

If you are in a bedroom, with the door closed, that is not so easy. For the last ten years, I have returned to the beach, but always stayed in hotels in at last the fourth story or taller. Or away from the beach. And when I could still hear the ocean, I felt myself hold my breath when for some reason, I didn't hear that regular splash of wave.

My goals to commemorate this ten year anniversary was to stay in a cabin, on a beach.

I wasn’t ready to do that in Phuket. But two weeks ago, I returned to Thailand, and went to another island called Koh Chang. It is an island south of Phuket – and is more protected by the Gulf of Thailand than the Andaman Sea facing Phuket. 

Koh Chang Thailand - in the Gulf of Thailand, less exposed to a tsunami than Phuket.
I rented a cabin within 10 meters of the beach – and spent every evening watch the sunset. I spent moments each day reflecting on the beauty of nature – and the unintended events when nature collides. Each day – I saw the low tide, and watched carefully to see how far it would go out – and when it should be returning. I focused on the beauty and blessings and sunsets. And not on what might be bad or might go wrong.

That is the path that most survivors have taken over the last ten years. Some have returned to Phuket to retrace their steps. Others have gone with family or friends to give the a glimpse of the bad bedtime story that they have tried to share for so many years.

In the end, we grieve, celebrate and miss the people who did not survive that day. And the rest of us do what we can to move on – to celebrate - to remember and to live.

To all of those that lost someone special on December 26, 2004, I am thinking about you today. And to the survivors – may you have the strength to move on and thrive in your own way.  How did each of you commemorate the day? And please let me know if I can help share your story.

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At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Kristin Fedorow said...

Thank you very much Rick. I'm a survivor. I only found your page/site recently and so haven't shared my story but I would like to. Yesterday I went for a long walk in the morning and then I went for a swim in the sea at Hervey Bay, Queensland. I spent the day on my own which made it even more difficult. Kristin Fedorow

At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Mahabub Bhuiyan said...

sad story

At 2:45 AM, Blogger april flower said...

Pray for all who lost lives.God give strength for their loved ones to over come. Writing this in tears. Pavithra


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