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Surviving a Tsunami


The day after the tsunami hit, we spoke with Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs. He was vacationing in Sri Lanka, which was hit very hard by the tsunami. And he shared with us his amazing tale of survival.

Mr. MICHAEL DOBBS (Reporter, Washington Post): I was swimming around the little tiny island that my brother owns in a place called Welligama Bay, which is on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. And I was about a quarter away round the island when I heard my brother shout at me that there was something very strange happening with the sea. I looked around. I couldn't see what was the matter. It was a beautifully clear blue sky. But then, I saw the waters rising at an astonishing rate. It seemed to rise about 30 foot in space over a couple of minutes.

CHADWICK: Michael, the water is rising dramatically. Did it feel violent? Were you thrashed around by a huge wave? What was going on?

Mr. DOBBS: It didn't feel all that violent. Many people think of a tidal wave as a huge wall of water 30 feet high, but that's not how it is, particularly if you're in the water. Rather than a wave coming at you and hitting you, it's just the water is rising very, very quickly. And it rose above the level of a coastal road that runs along the shoreline. Fortunately, I was able to grab hold of a catamaran that fishermen use. The catamaran came to rest against some trees in the building. Otherwise, we would have been swept right inland.

CHADWICK: Did you see boats or animals or things getting swept out past you?

Mr. DOBBS: It was mainly that boats were either being rushed out to sea or swept two or 300 hundred yards inland where they smashed into people's houses along with the water, and in many cases brought the houses crumbling down around the people who lived inside them. That caused quite a lot of fatalities.

CHADWICK: That's Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, recorded three years ago, the day after the great tsunami.

An estimated 230,000 people were killed or went missing after the wave. At the time, there was no system in place to warn people of a tsunami. Since then, countries throughout the region have installed systems, warning systems, and they staged regular drills. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.