Tsunami in Southeast Asia

On 26 December 2004, at 7.58 local time, an earthquake measuring 9.0 in magnitude on the Richter scale, one of the strongest recorded in the last century, generates a tsunami of frightening dimensions that hits the coastlines of the countries around the Indian Ocean, claiming approximately 300,000 victims.

The epicentre of the earthquake is located off the northwest coast of the island of Sumatra, at a depth of approximately 10 km, caused by the subduction of the Indian plate, sliding in a northeast direction, under the Burma plate. Over the days to follow, seismic activity moves gradually north with numerous aftershocks of maximum magnitude of 7.0. The earthquake causes the seabed above the fault line to rise by several metres, triggering a freak wave that engulfs the island of Sumatra. Travelling at a speed of 6-700 kph, it hits the coast of Thailand in just over one hour and a half, causing death and destruction on the beaches frequented by great numbers of western tourists, and sweeping hundreds of meters inland. The same occurs on the islands of Nicobar and those off the Indian coast. About two hours later, the wave hits the coast of Sri Lanka, wiping out coastal populations, followed by the coast of India. The wave strikes the Maldives, at over 2,000 km west of the epicentre, after approximately three hours, and simultaneously hits the African coasts of Somalia and Kenya in the late morning, having travelled thousands of kilometres. 

Less than 24 hours after the tsunami, a team from the Department of Civil Protection is in Sri Lanka to provide aid and assistance to the Italian tourists hit by the catastrophe, while other emergency units reach the Maldives and Phuket, in Thailand. Thus begins the work of the Department in Sri Lanka, which follows up the initial emergency operations with an aid program for the tsunami victims including reconstruction work, social assistance and the re-launch of the local economy.

The emergency tsunami Programme, possible thanks also to donations by Italians who took part in the solidarity campaign launched by the Department, carried out 56 reconstruction and development projects between 2004 and 2007: 

34 were carried out by Italian Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) through conventions and 8 with other bodies and organisations

14 were carried out directly by Civil Protection Department 

The donations received at the time came to a total of 50 million euro. With these resources, it has been possible to complete all the activities included in the aid Programme, whose costs and implementation times are reported in a publication that “takes account” of what was done after the tsunami in Sri Lanka until 2007. Two and a half years after the tragedy, all the projects envisaged have been completed and handed over to beneficiaries and local authorities.

Furthermore, upon the closure of the general Programme, some funds, interest accrued and new donations were still available. The Guarantors, with the consent of the Donors’ Committee, have put these amounts towards six new projects, carried out until 2010 in Sri Lanka. The Department of Civil Protection has directly handled relations with the those responsible for carrying out in-field interventions. Like before, these new projects have been subject to the system of monitoring and control of reports already tried and tested in the management of the general interventions Programme.

All the pertinent documentation is available on the website www.emergenzamaremoto.org


Tsunami: the drama, the devastation, the intervention. It was 1:58 (07:58 local time) in Italy, on 26 December 2004, when the earth shook in Southeast Asia with a mighty 9.1 on the Richter Scale. The epicentre is located off the northwest coast of Sumatra. The enormous quantity of energy released by the quake creates a tsunami of catastrophic proportions, claiming over 300,000 victims, dead or missing, of all nationalities. In fact, it being Christmas, many tourists had decided to spend their winter holidays in Southeast Asia. It is the first time that a natural calamity of such proportions has hit such a vast area with such a high number of victims of different nationalities, from local inhabitants to the many tourists in the area. The news travels around the globe in just a few hours.

The Operations Committee in Italy. In Italy, the first organisation to be alerted by the Government is the Civil Protection. At 4 am, at the Civil Protection offices in Via Vitorchiano, the Operations Committee is convened, made up of representatives from all units of the civil protection System. First, efforts are concentrated in the search for people who, if identified and rescued, can still be saved. Contact continues with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, where the crisis Unit is convened, to follow the development of the situation and begin to plan timely intervention. On the same day, 26 December, the Prime Minister issues a Civil Protection order to deal with the emergency.

The intervention. The decision is taken to station the Italian rescue teams in three points of the area hit by the tsunami: Malè, the capital of the Maldives, Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka and Phuket, in Thailand, where by 27 December a field hospital is opened to provide aid to the injured. The Civil Protection teams are the first to arrive in the areas of Matara and Galle, in the south, and the area of Trincomalee, in the northeast of Sri Lanka. Survivors are in immediate need of assistance, needing food and water, rest as well as medical treatment. The surveys conducted on-site reveal a need to concentrate efforts first and foremost in the medical field, in the construction of reception areas for the homeless and in the instalment of water purifying systems. In the meantime, the Italian Government must bring home all nationals, among others, who wish to return, using the airlift organised by the Department in conjunction with some private airline companies and the military. The airlift begins on 27 December and makes it final flight to complete all repatriation operations on 3 January 2005. A total of 4,308 passengers are transported to Italian airports.

Installation of field hospitals and reception centres. Meanwhile, work on-site continues and on 30 December, a second field hospital is opened in Hunawatuna, near Galle, in southeast Sri Lanka: The injured receive medical care and the more serious cases are transferred to nearby hospitals. Thousands of evacuees find shelter in the tents installed by the many Civil Protection volunteers, deployed and coordinated by the Department and deployed in the areas assigned to Italy by local authorities. In the south, between Matara and Galle, 12 camps are set up for a total of 534 tents. In the northeast, the tents installed come to a total of 208, divided into 4 reception areas. In total, the tents provided by Italy have provided accommodation for over 4,000 people and more than 600 families. The decision of the Department to create reception areas is down to two fundamental needs: to guarantee medical care and standards of hygiene to prevent the break out of epidemics, on the one hand and to create a homely, community atmosphere on the other, essential for recovery from the shock of the tragedy.

The Italian airlift. For quicker and easier transfer of manpower and materials around the area, the Department make use of Canadair CL 415 aircraft from the State air fleet thanks to an agreement signed between the Singhalese and Italian Governments. Departed from Italy on 31 December, the aircraft arrive at their destination 4 days later. Over approximately three months, the two Canadairs carried out 197 missions, flying for over 452 hours between the base in Ratmalana, the military airport of Colombo and the airports of Trincomalee and Kogaala, in the area of Matara. 64 tons of material are carried and 1,198 passengers transported including personnel from the Department, the Fire Service, operators from Non-governmental Organisations and from United Nations agencies, medical teams and local authorities.

Once the first stage of the emergency is concluded, the second stage of Italian intervention begins: reconstruction.