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Hurricane Ian, Like The Asian Tsunami,
By Yoichi Shimatsu
Summary: This is a 2-part article in one long wail, reading for a snowy winter of cabin fever, the first half devoted to the Hurricane Ian recovery effort in the Florida, and the second part my recollections of the 2004 South Asian Tsunami disaster in Thailand. These recommendations are based on my experience as a field researcher in the wake of the Asian Tsunami of 2004 for a study by the region's two top-ranked architectural schools, at the University of Hong Kong and Thammasat University in Bangkok. The top-tier cooperative research effort, which combined fieldwork with state-of-art computer modeling and mechanical engineering test-beds, issued what's still considered a classic analysis with novel remedies for structural flaws in resort construction. Although the findings were timely and well received by governments and larger corporations, the emerging social problem across the Asian beach-tourism sector turned out to be get-rich-quick greed, resulting in a chaotic "recovery" that rebuilt even more shoddily that before the tsunami. As a result, tourism arrivals to that region have dropped significantly due to environmental degradation, poor service standards, a high crime rate and clap-trap buildings (as compared with the more elegant pre-tsunami era). The research paper, however, was well received in many tourist areas worldwide due to the new appreciation of environmental approaches to resort development and property protection.
That report is titled "Sustainable Resorts: Learning from the 2004 Tsunami" and its lead researchers being Professor Stephen S.Y. Lau, then vice-dean of the HKU architecture faculty, and Rachadporn Kanipun with the Thammasat University architecture faculty near Bangkok. The online access code of that report is here and also posted at the end of this article. https://hub.hku.hk/bitstream/ 10722/42014/1/108238.pdf
Powerful Storms Expose Design Flaws
Hurricane Ian as a Category 5 storm provided an ultimate test of structural worthiness in the South Florida region, which is economically focused on tourist arrivals and vacationers. The challenges in the wake of that devastating mega-storm are awesome, from questions over the cost-benefit ratio of whether to depopulate offshore islands or suffer repeated losses from rebuilding of bridges and roads in the future, and there's is the politically sensitive issue of what to do about all those flimsy trailer parks that are home to retirees and veterans?
This article is not an attempt to promote any panacea for that host of problems, but instead urges cross-profession dialogue and cooperation to develop cost-effective initiatives to improve the quality of building materials and upgrade architectural design to benefit home owners and businesses on the path to economic and environmental recovery of a storm-ripped region. Given the present economic recession and the spiraling cost of construction materials, the rebuilding hundreds of homes poses a huge financial challenge. The timing of this disaster could hardly be worse on both personal budgets and state finances.
One key proposal here is for state, county and township planners to draw on the computer modeling capabilities and the tool set of the many architecture schools and mechanical engineering departments in Florida's outstanding university system. The extent of damage shows that novel techniques are needed to bolster structural durability against the mighty forces of wind and water in motion. Ian was not the first and certainly not the last hurricane to batter the Southeast region, meaning preventive measures, not just replacement and repair, are needed to withstand future storms. Computer-based analysis and lab testing are needed to improve the performance of building materials under extreme stress, and if these tasks can be incorporated into student education, the cost-effectiveness would be a much-needed contribution to Floridian society in budgetary terms. Fortunately, the state university system is not a for-profit enterprise but a servant of the community.
After a powerful storm like Andrew or Ian passes, leaving a trail of wreckage, townspeople and their representatives in government are presented with a choice of either applying the lessons from the disaster to their rebuilding efforts or repeat the mistakes of the past that led to structural weaknesses. Smaller cities and towns tend to fall back on their existing contractors, workmen and in rare cases the original architect, who might consult a local construction engineer while most homeowners simply go back to the original design plan that facilitated the storm damage. Looking ahead to the next disaster is not inherent to human nature, the desire to crawl back into the same familiar cave. Today, building costs are exponentially greater than in the past due to America's import dependency. The rising price of replacement of damaged parts puts structural survival at a premium.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the practical type of fellow who rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on tough challenges, has a rare opportunity now to gather a multi-expertise team to review building code, upgrade design guidelines, approve measures to strengthen the safety of built structures, and introduce advances including computer-aided analysis of foreign-made building materials. A coordinated effort at the state level can help home owners with perplexing problems and guidelines for affordable repair work and rebuilding. In a tailspin era of industrial decline in the USA and dependency on shoddy foreign workmanship, the most informed advisory pool of craftsmen, carpenters, roofers and stonemasons are needed to improve construction standards and lower the costs in this era of runaway inflation. If the construction sector itself can be kick-started as part of the crisis response, that would bring long-term benefits to Florida and the rest of the nation, desperately in need of craftsmanship and quality building standards under the rubric of "Made in USA".
Teamwork between government and industry along with cost-effective innovation in civil engineering are vital to solving persistent problems that Hurricane Ian ripped open for the world to see. Roofing is obviously inadequate to the challenge of a Category 4 and higher storm, and the solution could well be simpler than installing iron-clad panels. Here is an ideal challenge for computer-based studies using wind tunnels to test various roof designs and anchoring systems.
One can choose to write off the entire national fleet of mobile homes as being too flimsy under ever-stricter codes. Yet where are all the retirees and vets supposed to reside at anywhere the same cost? Engineers can come up with a way to increase structural stability with low-cost steel girders below the floor and hoop supports overhead. Of course, that challenge would be a lot easier if back in the 1980s the globalist bankers did not exterminate Made In America steelmills in favor of cheap malleable crap metal from China. The national movement for reindustrialization must begin somewhere and Florida is as good a place to start metal fabrication. I am saying this as a former member of the Sheetmetal Workers Union and a millwright with the United Steel Workers of America.
Luckily, trailer parks and smaller buildings do not require tons of metal reinforcement but only a few strategically placed rails and rods to exponentially increase structural stability. Conestoga wagons come to my mind, because a few metal hoops and iron rods made these wooden carts into the sturdiest vehicles for the westward migration. Cost effectiveness comes first, to be perfectly honest and realistic in these hard times, while quality can wait for the present time. Sheffield steel is not required for most home-repair projects. Rough and ready is more apt to today's fiscal squeeze when it's become impossible for most business owners and heads of households to come up with huge bundles of cash or amass sufficient credit in the wake of the long lockdown and a grinding recession. Cost is a restraining factor so low-cost alternatives must be discovered and applied widely. (Just remember the global banks and senseless wars put us into this hole but we are going crawl out one way or another.)
This is the moment to remember that old saying about "crisis creates opportunity". The sheer scale of damage inflicted upon Florida makes it possible for building-materials suppliers and contractors source in quantity to offer lower costs per unit to a vast market. To achieve affordability for retirees and young families, all players in the construction field need to team up to provide the hardware for less. A heroic revival of Fort Meyers, once construction and repairs get underway, can serve as a showroom for the rest of the nation to quit despairing and get moving. This is a struggle for hearts and minds that we cannot afford to lose.
Volunteerism is essential to the revival of South Florida, especially now amid a deepening recession. Eager young architects straight out of university are willing to experiment and search the archives for novel solutions. As for increasingly uppity minorities, stop complaining about inequality under the Sun and help a battered society address its most urgent challenges. Perhaps Jimmy Carter's Habitat can snap out of its late-life slumber and get volunteer teams of carpenters, roofers and plumbers, along with youngster novices, helping seniors to rebuild their homes and renovate their trailers. Summertime internships for college students and high-school students can boost morale all around, while transferring life skills. Following the isolationism of the lockdown, American society needs revival and the best way for that is for people of all ages and backgrounds to work together as one.
The Propaganda for EVs Swamped
Americans tend to forget their fear of natural disasters once the immediate threat of destruction recedes. Despite their inflated claims of being "world-leading environmentalists", the farcical Green activists and the Sierra Club cadres have no practical solutions for dealing with harsh weather and instead proffer reduced carbon emissions as some far-off fantastical remedy for Nature-powered storms. This abstemious response is similar to Prohibition in blaming what's in the tank instead of figuring how we are going to make a living in a Depression without commuting a 100 miles a day on the freeway. Farming? You will have to put in a lot of weekend overtime and burn off even more gas to afford 40 acres.
The wishful thinking behind Green ideology is a problem and not the solution. The fact is that electric cars failed the population of south Florida during the panicked getaway from a fast-approaching Ian. Advocates of EVs, while boasting of the 200-mile range on a topped up battery set, fail to acknowledge that the distance to Disneyland on crowded stop-and-go roads is 196 miles, ending sadly in power blackout over Orlando, forcing abandonment of $40,000 Teslas along 1-4 infested with crocodiles, long past blacked out Tampa. The EV advocates are still too cowed by Ian to admit the ridiculous vulnerability of electric vehicles.
Nowadays, due to media propaganda delivered through wide-screen TV, the American Dream consists of a Telsa charged up in a 4-car garage and a 6-bedroom vacation home in south Florida. Wishful thinking cannot control a planet when vast geophysical forces like Ian that can easily collapse huge structures, leaving a trail of destruction. However harmful Ian may have been, far worse is yet to come due to an aging infrastructure in this fiscal insolvent country living on borrowed cash that will never be repaid to financial lenders, notably the Chinese who are trading debt paper into valuable property in the USA, including a vast estate in Central Florida for a veterinary biolab. Biden's free-spending generosity to Ukraine and Puerto Rico, neither having any intention of paying back, means only one thing is certain, that American taxpayers are financially drowning underwater. Even proud Florida is being taken over by well-funded "refugees" from Venezuela and Europeans off the plane in Miami on the hunt for cheap property. Americans, especially Floridians, are being disenfranchised.
In the wake of Hurricane Ian's passage through the Caribbean, President Joe Biden has shown the temerity to "reward", with a $60 million bribe disguised as an aid package to that shamelessly subservient de facto colony Puerto Rico, where exactly one person was reported killed by Ian. The money won't be going to the poor but is of course for its parasitic local bureaucracy's chronic misappropriation of American tax revenues funneling into the pockets of crooked contractors and politicians earning kickbacks. Mys suspicion is that Biden appealed to his PR cronies to send hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to Florida to enlist in the Democrat Party in order to swing the elections. This was done three years ago, when the Orlando social security office was swamped with Puerto Ricans families who got preferential treatment over life-long Floridians. That was Tammany Hall South.
Contrary to the hopes of the Green activists, Hurricane Ian was not among the worst storms in modern American history as compared with the Labor Day 1935 storm at 185 mph, Camille 1969 at 175 mph, Andre 1992 at 165 mph, Michael 2018 at 155 mph, and the many 150 miles-per-hour storms. In terms of its 100-plus death toll, Ian is not a serious contender as compared with the super-killer hurricanes that killed more than 1,000 people, including Katrina 2005 with about 1,800, unsurprising when considering the fact that much of the New Orleans region is below the waterline of the Mississippi River. Here, again, most of the mortality rate is due to built structures of inadequate strength or lodged on risky sites of low elevation with sandy soil and near rivers.
Contrary to so-called climate "science" and its "global warming" heresy, hurricanes have been diminishing in force and death tolls. The worst hurricane over the past century occurred 85 years ago, back in 1937 at Galveston. Given the fact that Texas has since become the center of the oil and gas boom, Green theory is way off the mark, plumb wrong, since according to their emissions theory the power of storms should be increasing over the past 50 years rather that abating. Democrat support for the UN-COP global warming conferences should be once and for all debunked and rejected as eco-fraud, and the funding reallocated to global disaster relief. The federal government must drop these exercises in hocus-pocus and instead enable every state to determine its own environmental priorities. For Gov. DeSantis, the rebuilding program should be a renewal of tsunami-hit southwest Florida. Of course, that also would be a test run for his presumed near-future presidential nomination bid.
This set of economic problems caused by the free-spending liberal regime increases the financial burden for homeowners with damaged houses, beach cottages and mobile homes in need of low-interest loans. These financial pressures, in contrast with the fairly stable post-tsunami economy in Thailand, will impact less-affluent Floridians to further slow the rate of post-hurricane recovery. DeSantis is therefore absolutely correct about the role of state government, rather than federal authority, in guiding the entire process of rebuilding, starting with low-interest terms of lending for repairs and encouraging volunteer self-help efforts with low-cost building materials similar to Jimmy Carter's Habitat program, which should be called in to supply cheap building materials and skilled manpower to aid Floridians. Improving structural quality while reducing costs is a tightrope that can be walked one step at a time.
Some of the key issues for rebuilding south Florida include the vulnerability of mobile homes to wind and flood damage, starting with the anchoring the base. The basic problem is the lack of proper metal struts and floor supports in sheet-metal boxes sold as mobile homes, which are flimsy beyond belief. So what can be done to improve the structural strength of mobile homes with doubling the cost? As a former sheet metalwork and millwright in a steel mill, I can attest that an honest workshop can produce lightweight and narrow, yet strong chassis and roofing hoops for a strong but light structural cage around a mobile home. The problem is the fact that the Washington DC bureaucrats and the bankers shut down the American steel mills four decades ago and the crappy Chinese-made "steel" being imported is weak and expensive, when adding on shipping costs. Therefore, a fabrication shop should be either revived or a new one set up in Central Florida to knock out thousands of struts and support beams for an improved mobile home industry, conforming to new state regulations for storm durability.
The other problem for stabilizing structures in Florida is the same as in beachside Thailand, specifically sand without base rock. As tested at the University of Hong Kong, the best solution are not traditional concrete foundations (which sink when sand is flooded with water) but metal cables attached to concrete-block anchors, linked to the four corners) angled about 20 degrees. The trailer or shack will rattle but it will not roll. Whether existing trailers can be retrofitted with a cage and anchors is a question for Floridians, but these safety measures should become an industry standard. Lab tests done at the University of Hong Kong showed that anchors in sand are capable of providing many metric tons of stability against even incremental ground movement.
A much more costly problem is wind and water damage to larger apartment buildings and business structures, which property groups are reluctant to admit. Picture glass has proven to be in both Thailand and Florida a recipe for disaster, and there are acres left to be shattered by the next storm. Bribery of building inspectors in Democrat cities is an all-too prevalent criminal activity in larger cities, meaning the enforcement office for Florida's building code will probably have to be reformed with honest leaders who refuse to take bribes. (If inhabitants have been injured by flying glass, this should be reported in the local press, which is failing its duty to the public. Indeed press coverage of all types of structure-related injuries should be done for the sake of post-quake regulations and management.)
Traumatic Fear of Water
The UHK-Thammasat report focused on two priorities, the first being identification of the causes of the high casualty rates at some large-scale resort hotels, many of which suffered a 100-percent death toll by mass drownings due to serious design flaws that amplified wave energy; and second, whether impact-vulnerable smaller tourism structures sited on loose sand could be stabilized with an affordable cable-and-block anchoring method.
Aside from those architectural issues, there was an adventure aspect to doing field research in the immediate aftermath of one of the fiercest tsunami in human history, which is recalled here in this second part of the report. Florida and the rest of the USA is a quite different type of modern society as compared the jungles of South Thailand with its still strong indigenous communities and ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions, which are probably of interest to readers at rense.com .
My research mission through tsunami-devastated seaside communities in southwestern Thailand enabled me to write on-the-ground reports and deliver photos on the specific movement and action of vast waves in destroying major resorts, annihilating entire towns and otherwise littering vast stretches of coastline with swollen bodies of drowning victims. This hellish journey was for a field study of the terrific damage to tourist hotels, lodges and markets caused by monstrous waves enabled architects equipped with both traditional tools and computer-based modeling to replicate the force of unstoppable waves versus seemingly immovable structures.
The power of three massive waves not only overwhelmed structures, breaking through gates and doorways but also adapted to high walls with a radical increase in wave height, flooding even the third floor rooms of larger hotels and thereby drowning tourists squeezed against the top-floor ceilings. In that regard, the Asian Tsunami and Ian were somewhat different, with the tsunami impact over in less than an hour with its suction-tug pulling victims out to sea, whereas Ian delivering many hours of battering against lower floors of large structures and sweeping trailer homes off their flimsy supports.
The unimaginable force of water in motion, which overwhelmed the strongest structures, compelled those Asian university architects and architectural engineers to conceive of more flexible methods of preventing wall collapse and foundation displacement, thereby coming up with new strategies for survivable structures capable of surviving super-powerful wave impacts. One of the modeling devices at U. Hong Kong was a wave machine, on a smaller scale, of course, to test models from several directions.
As in the case of designing large ships to survive oceanic wave, the solutions were not based on thickening walls but instead in the anchorage of structures at some depth in the sand, while allowing some flexibility to relieve stress on walls and pillars. As a result of combining field research with lab modeling, the published research paper became an instant classic, which can be accessed at several websites, as the one listed at the end of this report/article.
Fear of Water
Lest you might assume that I am an extraordinarily brave individual, let me assure you that the fear of water dominated my entire youth. My participation in the Tsunami aftermath was inextricably linked to my attachment, in the Buddhist negative sense of that term, of being beholden to something external as opposed to elevating one's own inner calling (which in my case turned out not to be water sports but a far stronger interest in journalism and its background history in past events).
My seaside pastimes in the idle hours of boyhood including swimming in the whirlpool-powered riptide along Japan's Inland Sea, teenage body surfing on the 99-league beach near Chiba (south of Fukushima), my brief 1960s heyday of surfing in Southern California, and later rowing a wooden Whitehall boat in San Francisco Bay in the 1980s. Psychologically this fanatic determination to overcome the force of water (rather than going with the flow in a canoe) was due to my early childhood near-drowning experience at an ice-cold lake in the Sierra mountain range, with death averted in the last seconds by a teenage boy who dove in to pull me out of danger.
My one-man expedition to the devastated coastal region was thus part of a longer process of coming to terms with the primal trauma behind my fear and loathing of deep water. To cut to the quick, that awe of H2O was suddenly overcome on the Thai coast when a beach trail at high tide continued though shallow waves and I stepped on rocks and then on some sort of squishy material, presumably a life jacket which turned out to be the rotting body of a drowning victim. The stench was sickening, burning through my lungs, and of course there were no shoe vendors within a hundred miles and my clothing supply was down to the last pair of underwear. Stopping to stare down at the tiny fish nibbling at my ankles, I wondered why these voracious fingerlings were not dining on the remnants of the corpse. Inedible, I supposed. So this is how it ends, not in a blaze of glory but in the cosmic garbage disposal grinder. That's there is to human existence, a stinking spatter on a lump of coral? Then weird happiness blew away my inherent pessimism. "Be damned glad you're not quite there yet! Kick up your smelly feet and dance!" Was this a message from God or the Devil? Probably both. The ax has yet to fall on my neck. So get moving.
That primordial shock broke the spell of drowning, enabling a very much alive me to face the challenges of pulling swollen corpses from out under buildings at Khaolak, which had suffered a 100 percent mortality rate for tourists, staffers and vendors. No survivors were there to tell of the horrors of that trio of gigantic walls of seawater, only the grisly silent aftermath. Sometimes the best remedy for a life trauma is a bigger trauma that shouts: Yes, you are going to die and it's only a matter of when and how, so count yourself lucky for every single breathe and don't worry about how it ends. In one way or another, every one of us is courting death. As in the story of Noah's Ark, water is humankind's worst enemy and yet our best friend, which is as true today in Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian as it was in south Thailand.
Along the southwest coast of Thailand, the confirmed deaths reached nearly 5,000, with nearly the same number reported missing and presumably dead. The recorded 8,000-plus serious injuries was an under-count, when many flooded communities never received medical aid. The actual death toll is probably greater, since it took more than a year to recover significant numbers of bodies that were lodged between underwater rocks or in the tangled roots of palm trees.
Basically, the research group's thesis was based on my observations at large tourist hotels at Khaolak. Large structures such as resort hotels channel the arriving mega-waves in the narrow spaces between structures, causing the influx of water to rise to great heights, to as much as the third floor of hotel buildings. This rise of water along a narrow passageway between multi-story buildings results in physical compression, with an exponential increase in wave power, dooming the people whose bodies are crushed against the ceilings. Redesigning large resorts by opening more passages for incoming waves is the only way to reduce large numbers of drowning deaths by high-powered wave action.
Outside of the devastated hotels, the lack of bodies along the shore at first puzzled me, until I noticed a leg sticking out of the clasp of the roots of a palm tree. The increasing mass of a rising wave scoops up fleeing beachgoers into its maw, but then internal water pressure plunges the struggling victims down to its base, scraping the bodies along the sand. Under thousands of pounds of water mass, human bodies are compressed, flattened out like a ball of dough under a rolling pin. These still alive victims are then rammed into the root balls of palm trees or through the 8-inch crawl space in the foundation of larger buildings.
A Noose on the Footloose
My assigned task on the rescue crew at Khaolak was to tie ropes to the belts and feet of small teenage boys who were called in to crawl into the foundations of concrete resort buildings. The brave lads were squeezed into the crawl space with orders to attach loops to either foot. The problem was that after the tsunami waves retreated, the corpses bloated up to larger than their normal size, now compress like a thick slice of ham in a sandwich of concrete. It took about five men about a half hour to yank out the bloated bodies of European tourists with repeated tugging until at last the corpse popped out intact to be laid on the sand like a beached whale. The task was literally like threading a camel through the eye of a needle.
Meanwhile, the little boys were blubbering incoherently, shaking in horror and stinking like hogs. I poured some water on their scalps and rubbed the grime off their faces. Sadly, only a bottle apiece was allocated for decontamination or the rescue crew would suffer dehydration with the lack of supplies, despite water being everywhere around us as in the Coleridge poem, without a drop to drink. In the afternoon, the sunlight reflected off the beach making it too hot for the team to continue the body hunt until early evening.
Meanwhile, my assigned task was to sniff around under palm trees for bodies, marking the spot with a can of spray paint for men with axes to chip out on the following day. Nobody bothers to thank a foreigner for joining the gruesome effort, since it is the Buddha or a Hindu diety or maybe even the charitable Christian God that assigned you to this thankless mission. In my case it may have been the holy spirit of Confucius hovering over Hong Kong U, or perhaps Mother Mary from the chapel at my Catholic school in Kobe.
The House of Sinful Love
In the largest ghost resort at Khaolak, swept clean of furniture, I found the guest-registry on a desk unmarred by water stains. To help inform foreign recovery teams of the identities of drowning victims, I walked miles to find an intact phone connection with the rescue delegation from an Asian nation, crowded among other foreign teams in Phuket town, located on the other leeward side of the peninsula out of harm's way. When I told their chief officer about the existence of a complete list of names from his country, he responded "We do not want to see it and do not try to contact us again." Click.
Some thanks, eh? While walking back in the moonlight, my confused mind tried to decipher what went down in that brief conversation. Once back to the vacant hotel, I reopened the book of sin and used my flashlight to scan the list of names. Every one of the kingsize rooms had been occupied by a woman and a man with different family names. It then dawned on innocent-minded me that this was a secret holiday haven for bigamous "couples" without their legal spouses. Most were older than 40 and up to 65 years of age, and some had a child staying with them, which indicated this was a holiday haven for upper-class adultery, love affairs that had lasted over many decades and presumably tolerated by their official spouses while remaining unknown to their kinfolk and business colleagues. What a melodramatic way to die, in the arms of one's true love. For once at last, drowning didn't seem so bad after all.
Stunned by this revelation, I stumbled outside onto the sand in the yellow light and dark shadows, and stepped unwittingly on something sharp and prickly. Oh, no, I shuddered, not a spiny sea urchin, which are highly toxic. I reached down and it turned out to be a pile of seashell necklaces. Feeling an unfamiliar sort of sadness worthy of a soap opera, I picked up those baubles and hung them on an iron-grid gate as an act of blessing for those loyal couples, whose love was truer than most of our insincerely fickle matches, especially my own insincere dalliances, and then walked southward toward the next disaster site by the moonlit sea. The lethal tsunami taught me the meaning of romantic love, not that I was going to do anything so drastic and insane for the remainder of this brief life. Time to move on to the next horror story.
Further along the beach, where some villagers had managed to survive by climbing palm trees (root or branch, which is the better option for simians like us?), the suspension of ferry service was compensated for by sea-canoes and outboard motor-powered heavy wooden fast-boats that are virtually unsinkable and life-saving in emergencies, as proven in the Southeast Asian tsunami. A boat "captain" showed me a cave in an offshore rock before dropping me off at a ferry terminal, where service had just resumed for rescue squads. Littered with flotsam, the Andaman Sea was nevertheless glittery and idyllic, until a body floated by.
On the Beach
Several miles offshore, Phi-Phi Don island famous since the DiCaprio movie "The Beach", a volunteer team of firefighters from South Korea asked me, "How is it that you can locate bodies so quickly?" Pointing a forefinger at my nose and then to the roots of a palm tree, my answer was: "Being a Japanese on a tofu diet, I can smell the corpses like a sniffer dog because I don't eat kimchee. So ask a local islander to lend you either a nose or a mutt." They were overjoyed at digging out a corpse at last, fulfilling their mission, and on the next morning I spotted the Korean firefighters feeding a couple of homeless dogs as sniffers, a match made in heaven or more like a hell of a bulgoki feast for those homeless mutts, if they don't end up on the grill.
The Korean guys were kind enough to give me a bottle of OB beer, which helped me imagine a proper redesign of Phi Phi with wooden walkways and a sky bridge between sandy mounds and a neat row of tourist shops. That never happened, and as the way reality goes, a bunch of crooks did a land grab raising shacks and crappy hotels once again. I should have known, since a look inside the local post office showed all the safety deposits broken open with crowbars.
Wandering around piles of destruction, I put the beer into my backpack and probed around for a small pack of shortbread cookies. No, no! I ate the last one back at the ferry pier on the mainland! Suddenly hunger overwhelmed me, amplifying my exhaustion. A young Dutch fellow approached asking if I knew of a local restaurant. "Oh, yeah, there's a Grand Hyatt up on the knoll, wonderful lobster dinner, cheap!" His eyes beamed at the vision of food. "Hey, dude, just joking. There is nothing here, not even a pigeon to roast on a fire and oddly enough no fishes."
But isn't this the island where Leonardo went spearfishing? "You must be talking about the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The next boat back is noon tomorrow on the ferry. Have you ever trying to practice fasting? I'm doing a fast right now, it's great for …. well, waiting to die."
At that precise moment, our edifying discussion ended as a man in a straw hat rowed straight toward us. Nodding upon landing, he carried a huge steel wok, a small paddle, a bag and water bottle. Starting a wood fire, he moved on to clipping leaves from a wild vine. We watched as he boiled a pack of instant noodles and then stir-fried the green with bits of garlic, and then reached in the bag for a handful of shrimp.
"Catch those around here?" I asked him with all the calmness that could be mustered for cannibalism.
He smiled and said: "Frozen food", and passed a bowl to each of us. As the Euro lad smiled broadly, I commented, "This is Thailand, greatest place on Earth."
A captain rowed his boat ashore. I asked, "Could you give a ride back to the mainland?"
He shook his head with a definite negative. I come here to eat lunch. Oh, this is the dining area for the Thais working on the island.
I shared half the beer with that boat captain, who reciprocated with a small bag of chips. Then, after a bit of prodding, he said that a U.S. Navy fast-ship had arrived offshore of the island within two days of the tsunami and dispatched a helicopter to shore. The Americans were confronted by natives armed with machetes and handguns, telling them to leave promptly.
The captain added that the tensions up and down the coast against the American military began when marauding boatmen looking for phones to sell in Malaysia discovered hundreds of tsunami-wounded "western mercenaries" from the Afghan War on Christmas holiday. Days later, back on shore, this account was confirmed when I was passed along a northern road by a convoy of Thai Army troops and an American, probably CIA, atop the lead vehicle as if he was a born-again Patton. Hundreds of bodies were disinterred from shallow graves, and that is all that's known. I had met some of those mercenary types at bars in Bangkok, rough characters with a killer's edge, war criminals, one of them was a notorious crazed homicidal maniac.
Later in the afternoon, amid the wreckage of tourist shacks and trinket shops, I helped a Britisher who ran a rare surviving dive shop on Phi Phi island. He consented to appear in the video that I was shooting for the architects. On camera, he made a insightful comment: "Don't blame the tsunami; it's buildings that kill." Today, the same can be said for Hurricane Ian, I suppose.
An Ancient Myth of Disaster
After the ferry dropped me back on the peninsula, I strolled south, eventually reaching a rare forested hill along the seashore and entered a lodge with a magnificent view of a lagoon filled with the debris of crushed buildings. Since this was the only place open on the New Year's Eve holiday, there soon arrived various foreign volunteers, Canadians and Europeans, who had been working to tag body bags and jot identifying information in record books at a temporary mortuary on a temple compound. Everyone was exhausted, bleary and depressed as never before in their still young lives. As the oldest person, I suggested we take a walk along the beach to watch the sunset. "Cheer up, this is New Year's Eve, whoopie!" Nobody smiled but they all went along, hoping to forget momentarily what the horrors they had seen.
The stench of corpses was overcome by golden ripples of sunset on the Andaman waves, with India not far beyond the horizon. A tall Canadian lad asked "What's that floating on the waves?" A younger fellow waded out until waste deep and started picking up the scattered flotsam, which turned out to Thai baht notes worth in total about a hundred dollars. The question arose: "What should we do with the money? Turn it over to the police?"
As the senior member of this motley crew, I responded: "Your honesty is appreciated, but the cops have gone home for a holiday dinner by now, plus how could they ever find the owner among thousands of dead and missing?" "So what should we do with it?" Consider it a gift from God who just might be concerned about your mental state after witnessing so many horrible things. So following His orders, let's go the Seven-11 on the other side of the lagoon and buy as much beer as possible, because this holiday is yours because you earned it like nobody else ever has."
That night was celebration without the least party mood or whistles and funny hats; everyone there was just grateful to be alive. The volunteers divvied up into pairs in quiet conversation, a profound healing process that would carry them over into the challenges of a new year. Outdoors I poured a can of beer over my head to purge the stench of corpses and then fell asleep on a cot. In the morning light, the volunteers set off to their worksites, cheerfully waving goodbye to their new acquaintances.
While I was stuffing some of charity-donated packaged food into my backpack, the lodge owner sat on the floor so I casually asked him: "What do the Nagas have to do with this tsunami?"
The aged Thai man stared at me, stunned speechless, and then responded with a question: "How do you know about the Noks? Around here used to part of the Hindu religion, and some places still are."
"From an ancient legend of Japan about a prince who came to this southern ocean and dove down into the kingdom of the Dragon King, where he married a royal daughter, Naga princess. Not until the birth of their child, did he learn that her human form was an illusion and that her tribe resembled crocodiles. So the Noks do have something to do with this tsunami."
Amazed that an outsider might be familiar with ancient Hindu lore, he dropped his pretense of ignorance. "Whenever two Noks swim in a swirling circle, their energy raises up a tsunami. Three thousand years go, the Arabs came here and built pavilions along that sand bar that protects the lagoon, but those settlers drained the water to make ever-bigger palaces. The Noks protect the lagoons. To remove these offenders who have no respect for the land and sea, the Noks rose up a massive tsunami, which swept away that civilization forever."
"The Westerners have repeated those sins, getting drunk and whoring, making loud noises into the night when locals need to sleep, and showing no respect for land or sea, polluting everything. And so we see the consequences of their own actions when the sea rose in three great waves, clearing the lagoons as they are meant to be, free of trash and life-giving to tiny fish. Human greed, not the Noks or the ocean, are the cause of the disaster that befell them. If we continue refusing to live within the bounds of nature, our kind will be completely destroyed."
His words revived my thoughts about the military contractors on a break from the Afghan War. God or here, the divinities, works in mysterious ways, indeed. Giving thanks for his hospitality and picking up my backpack now full of emergency food and water, I strolled down the hill toward an inland bus stop to get to a distant disaster site on the mainland across the bay from the peninsula.
On arrival I canceled my reserved room at a fancy hotel due to the lack of hot water for a shower to remove the stench of decayed flesh. Turning from the front desk I passed a seated European foreign aid team who were sipping drinking Lanson champagne in plain sight of mourners searching for the bodies of their kin. I had difficulty controlling my anger at the arrogance of the inconsiderate scum. I urged them to seat themselves out of sight of passersby because their foreign mission could face dire danger in villagers get angered at the insolence at a time of grief. They could not understand my advice and instead offered to pour me a glass, which I refused on the way out to the road, shaking my head.
How one chooses to lead this brief life is a personal choice with the sole stipulation being that there are others less fortunate in this brief allotted time who are worthy of a kind word and a bit of respect. Propriety in the face of mass death was something lost on another French "aid worker" who got out of a rented Mercedes-Benz laughing her head off loudly as mothers anxiously searched on the temple walls for their children's faces among the posted images of the drowned. Luckily, the grief-engulfed mourners had not heard her thoughtlessly wicked howl, they being so tearfully engrossed in finding their kids. In any case, who needs foreign aid with strings attached that never reaches the "victims", those relatives at the temple morgue, who are nobodies swamped with undeserved troubles?
Down the dirt path, I gratefully met an older lady, a sea-tribe member, who made me a simple dinner of wild leaves on rice over a fire in her roadside yard and gave me a wooden tub of hot water to bathe and scrub my scalp, a baptismal font that untainted me of the stench of death. I woke up early, pushing my sore body from the straw mat. Time to catch a long-distance bus to Bangkok and then fly to Hong Kong to turn over my notes and video to the eagerly waiting architects, so that these findings might help to inform and aid other vulnerable seaside communities in the future.
Rushing back to Thailand as the weeks-long semester interim break ended, I resumed my journalism teaching post and completed editing a road video focused on the local grievances that had led to a Thai military crackdown against the Muslim community along the southern border with Malaysia. Just when a tsunami wipes out 16,000 lives in just one of the affected countries, the USA still spent billions hunting down supposed enemies in the Muslim villages south of Phuket in the borderlands with Malaysia on a local law-enforcement issue normally handled by the local police.
If the hard-earned lessons from Thailand under the tsunami can be of any help to Floridians in organizing their comeback, that would be great. Keep the faith, better times will surely arrive.
Note: My minuscule consulting company based in Hong Kong, Asian Initiatives (AI), created video documentaries including "Prayer Flags" on the ill-fated 1996 Everest disaster refuting Jon Krakauer's version of its causes; "The Flight of the Karmapa" on the sect divisions among the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism; produced a video on the Af-Pak borderland with interviews of the Taliban opposing plans for the Afghan War in 2001; participated in trade shows in the Persian Gulf region during the invasion of Iraq.
Web access to the Tsunami study: