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Oral History Helps Island Survive Tsunami

Associated Press (Asia) , February 28, 2005


SIMEULUE ISLAND, Indonesia - The ground shook so hard, people couldn't stand up when the massive earthquake rattled this remote Indonesian island the closest inhabited land to the epicenter of the devastating temblor.

But unlike hundreds of thousands of others who thought the worst was over when the shuddering stopped, the islanders remembered their grandparents' warnings and fled to higher ground in fear of giant waves known locally as "semong."

Within 30 minutes, Simeulue became the first coastline in the world to experience the awesome force of the Dec. 26 tsunami. But only seven of the island's 75,000 people died, thanks to the stories passed down over the generations.

"After the earthquake, I looked for the water to suck out," said Kiro, 50, who like many Indonesians uses one name. "I remember the story of the 'semong' and I ran to the hill."

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.

"You can't imagine this and only seven people died," he said. "It's amazing."

Subjects Covered: education

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