98 Year Old Oral History Saves Thousands of Lives

The Island of Simeulue is one of many, many in Indonesia. The earthquake that caused the 2004 Tsunami hit only 40 miles away. Simeulue was the first coast to be hit by the tsunami. 33 foot-high waves hit the island in only 30 minutes. 75,000 people live on the island. The physical damage to the island was incredible:

The island's northern shore took a direct hit from the waves, which left little standing. Along the western shore, the tsunami spared some villages and destroyed others, leaving a path of snapped palm trees, flattened houses and power poles dangling over roads.

The earthquake tipped the island up 4 feet on one side, exposing rugged blocks of coral reef along parts of the northern coast, said Taufik, an Indonesian official who surveyed the island for the government's meteorological and geophysical agency. Palm trees that once shaded white-sand beaches are now partially submerged on the southern end of the island, which sank 12 inches.

When a similar tsunami hit the Island in 1907, thousands died here. But this time, only 7 of the islanders perished. Why?

Simeulue's inhabitants had passed down through oral history the record of what happened when a similar earthquake hit the island back in 1907. Once the islanders felt the earthquake, they watched the coast. Once they saw the water being sucked out to sea, they knew that what was happening was the same thing that happened in 1907. (Notably, an earthquake that hit only three years ago did not cause such panic because there was not the added detail of the sea retreating from the coast). The stories about the ground shaking, followed by the water along the coast being sucked out to sea, meant (counter intuitively to a native if you think about it) that a big wave was coming. So the inhanbitants fled to high ground. Fast. So fast that only a tiny portion of the island's population was killed by the tsunami.

Nothing I have read indicates that the island's inhabitants had a formal tradition of oral history. But thankfully, here, it was nevertheless accurate enough to save probably thousands of lives.


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