Dateline Special: 2004 Tsunami

On March 15th, 2015, Dateline aired a special presentation on the 2004 Tsunami. The episode covered personal stories of people who were affected by the disaster, including the experience of Happy Hearts Fund founder, Petra Nemcova. Many survivors who were interviewed in the episode shared detailed reflections of the tsunami experience that were eye-opening to audiences unfamiliar with the long-term effect and devastation caused by tsunamis. Here are 4 lessons we learned about tsunamis from the Dateline episode:


The power of water

It’s hard for many people to fathom the double-sided force of mother nature. Water, for example is basic requirement for all existence and brings life to plants, animals, and human beings. Many people travel to islands or beach resorts to experience the tranquil and calming nature of water. At the same time, water can also be a destructive and deadly force. In the 2004 Tsunami, the earthquake that caused the tsunami started near the indonesian island of Sumatra deep in the ocean’s floor with magnitude up to 9.1. The quake was so powerful that it altered the earth’s rotation and caused three tsunami waves. The water from each wave reached up to 1.2 miles inland.  When faced with the powerful surge of the tsunami waves along the coast, even great swimmers could not withstand the powerful current.

The need for a tsunami warning system

Everyone was taken by surprise when the 2004 Tsunami hit. Ms. Nemcova was on vacation in Thailand when the wave hit her beachfront bungalow resort. She was packing in her room when she heard troubling screams from outside and within seconds water burst through the glass windows, striking her instantly.

The destruction caused by the 2004 Tsunami calls for an essential tsunami warning system in areas that are prone to natural disasters. The tsunami killed 230,000 people in one day and millions of people were homeless in 11 countries. Tsunamis are not gracious with preparation time and cause great loss of human life and property when people are not given warnings to prepare for the event and take actions to keep their families and friends safe.


The need for knowledge and preparation.

The survivors’ experience shows how alertness and small steps of preparation could increase the chances for survival. Laura Holliday’s story was one of them. She had constantly felt afraid of tsunamis her whole life and therefore read a lot of books to keep herself informed about warning signals for natural disasters. When she started to sense that a tsunami was going to occur while on vacation in Thailand, she was able to use her knowledge to sustain herself until she could receive assistance.

Listed below are some signals people  recognized before the tsunami occurred and actions people took while they were trapped in the wave of the tsunami:

  • If you see ocean water moving heavily backwards towards the horizon and you’re able to see the floor of the ocean that you would not be able to see normally, this is a sign that a tsunami would be coming
  • If you suspect that something is wrong, act on it and investigate, don’t wait
  • If you are diving and underwater and you see an unnatural amount of dust and dirt in the water and fish moving unnaturally, inform the diving instructor and inquire more information
  • If you see the wave coming and are on the shoreline, run to the nearest hill or high point as fast as possible
  • If there is no time to run and  you see the waves coming your way take in a deep breath and hold it as long as possible until you’re able to float to the surface again
  • Hold on to a steady pole, possibly a tree, as early as possible


The need for sustained response after natural disasters

Many survivors in the Dateline special visited Thailand again the following year in 2005. They went back to support the communities impacted by the tsunami and get a sense of closure. They all affirmed that the conditions of the communities called for the need for sustained response after natural disasters. After first responders leave a community, there are still years of reconstruction ahead. This visit inspired Ms. Němcová to start Happy Hearts Fund, a non-profit that rebuilds safe-resilient schools for children in areas impacted by natural disasters. She saw that by empowering children, entire communities are able to get back on their feet.
You can read a full description of Petra Nemcova’s story at