Friday, 26 December 2014

Boxing Day Tsunami 10 years on

Today the world is commemorating the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami which killed up to 250,000 people, made millions more homeless, and devastated communities across South East Asia. I can remember how as news filtered in at the time about the scale of the shocking devastation across such a vast area, there were also heart warming reports of how these incidents can bring people together (a concept that has been noticed in research into other disasters- Solnit, 2008). For instance, there was an almost immediate international response to provide funds for the relief effort in the weeks after the Tsunami, and the Disasters and Emergencies Committee (DEC) raised nearly £400m from donations in the UK alone which was used mainly  to rebuild people's homes that were destroyed by the Tsunami. However, there were also more localised examples of co-operation in the tsunami zone. These are explored in more detail in the BBC's coverage of survivors' stories, but I will focus below on a couple of examples which I think illustrate quite well some of the psychological concepts which also emerged in the work I have done with colleagues on mass emergencies.

Co-operation amongst those affected seemed to be the dominant response in the acute situation once the Tsunami struck, and what I think is particularly interesting is that this seems to have been a universal response across the whole region. So for example, some of the areas affected (such as the East coast of Sri Lanka and West coast of Thailand) are popular with tourists from Europe, and as the Tsunami hit land there did not appear to any differences in co-operation between locals and tourists, with people helping each other regardless of who they were as illustrated by a British tourist who was on the beach in Sri Lanka at the time;
One of the only positives to come out of it all was the humanity of it. It didn't matter about your nationality or religion. Everyone was checking on each other.

This sense of co-operation was also re-iterated by a British couple who were close to land in a boat by the Ko Phi-Phi islands off the West coast of Thailand;

We all decided to stay on the boat that night, moored out at sea. The boat was too small to have taken us all the way to Phuket. The only option we had was to wait for help to arrive in the morning. It was the longest night of my life and were it not for the camaraderie of those passengers on board and the wonderful generosity of the Thai people who owned and manned the boat, it would have been unbearable. 

As the sun rose, we took the boat in to the harbour once again and waited for the larger boats to arrive. It was just awful. From our position on the water we saw hundreds of people all desperate to get off the island. They were huddled together on the pier in the harbour.

These quotes support the research we did with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury et al 2009a & b) that found similar accounts of co-operation during life-threatening emergencies, which we explained through the emergence of a shared identity which encourages co-operation rather than competition. However, the second paragraph does illustrate a potential situation where such co-operation could reduce once any unifying factors diminish. For instance, I heard of unconfirmed reports that some European tourists were fighting on the jetties to get on the boats that were leaving Ko Phi Phi the day after the Tsunami. I would suggest that if this did happen, then it could be because the immediate threat of death had perhaps diminished once the waters had receded, so the strong shared identity that may have been present during the immediate crisis phase when the waves struck, could have become less apparent. Therefore, it is possible that some people could have retreated back into previously held identities before the disaster struck and then began competing for what they perceived to be scarce resources (eg European tourists who want to go home, fighting for places on boats to leave the island- rather than people who face a shared lethal threat who need to co-operate to survive). My last post on the crowd behaviour during Black friday showed how people can behave competitively if they are cast against each other to gain limited resources, so perhaps a similar phenomenon was in play here as well. Finally, I would also say that it's worth emphasising that if any fights did occur, they did not appear to be representative of what was a generally co-operative spirit in the aftermath of the Tsunami, and some have even reported an enduring sense of identity with the region to this day- such as two British tourists who were holidaying in Khao Lak, Thailand at the time of the Tsunmai; 

Ten years on and we are still looking at life with a lot of more appreciation. We feel connected with Thailand so that is why we continue with a Thai animal charity.

The tsunami wave as it approaches the beach in Thailand 26/12/2004

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.
Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. InternationalJournal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.
Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US. 

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