In the first weeks after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, I remember meeting a young man called Anthony in a village called Manakudy, on the southern tip of Tamil Nadu in India. He was about 17 years old, and had lost both his father and sister to the deadly waves.
Among the almost entirely flattened village, I watched as Anthony gathered up scraps of torn clothing and netting, putting them on bricks that he said were once part of his family’s home. He told me the tiny pile was all he had left.
Last night, as news broke of last night’s earthquake and possible tsunami, my mind turned to Anthony. I wondered how he was feeling as he heard the news of the tsunami warnings in India, including Tamil Nadu.
I also wondered if we might start hearing new stories of lives devastated by the terrible forces of nature.
The world heaved a huge sigh of relief when the potential powerful tsunami did not eventuate, but what we saw last night were some all too familiar reminders of what happened on Boxing Day back in 2004.
Here was another massive earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. And here again were impacts across the Indian Ocean, with communities on tsunami watch as far away as India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The tsunami alarm was raised in so many of the same areas devastated in 2004, where the memories of what happened back then are still very raw, most obviously among those people and communities who directly experienced it.
They’re the people who lost their loved ones, their livelihoods and their homes.
The persistence of these memories explains reports of panic scenes, especially in Aceh and other parts of Indonesia. There, people reacted immediately, leaving their homes and workplaces, and queuing at petrol stations. Traffic jams followed.
But what we also saw were effective early warnings, followed by evacuations. People knew about moving away from the coast, they knew to seek refuge on higher ground.
This is one important legacy of the 2004 disaster – communities in these areas are better prepared to respond when a disaster strikes.
Oxfam’s response to the 2004 tsunami was not just about providing urgent life-saving assistance such as water and shelter, but also about preparing people for the impact of future disasters.
For example, in Indonesia, we helped to develop disaster risk reduction plans for villages. In India, we worked with local NGOs to develop rapid response contingency plans. And in Sri Lanka, we helped to establish, advise and train village-based disaster management committees.
Even just a decade ago, humanitarian work was very focused on reacting to disasters rather than trying to get ahead of where disasters might strike and investing in getting people prepared so that any impact is reduced.
Of course, we still need to respond to disasters when they occur, but we also owe it to the communities that are affected to help build their own capacity to respond, as well as reduce the risk of future disasters.
We need to invest in things like effective early warning systems, secure homes and livelihoods, and strong local disaster management capacity.
We also need to make sure we listen to women, men and young people in communities, who know best how to prepare and respond to disasters in their local context.
The Australian Government understands this and is currently investing in work around reducing the risk of disasters, both in Indonesia and the region. This is most welcome.
Late last night, the Indian Ocean tsunami watch was lifted, and thankfully there appears to be no major damage.
But in a world where the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is expected to rise in the coming decades, it becomes even more important to look at how we support communities – and make sure they are as prepared as they can be for the next time.
This opinion editorial was first published by The Drum on 12 April 2012.