In disasters, lessons save lives
By Tilly Smith

Friday, 26 December 2014

Apichart Weerawong,
Associated Press, 2005.

When I was 10 years old I was on holidays in Thailand with my family. We had been there a week and had just celebrated Christmas with family and friends on the beach the day before it all happened.

It was Boxing Day and I was on the beautiful white sand beach of Mai Cao, in Phuket. It was eight in the morning. I was enjoying a family walk before breakfast along the beach with my dad, Colin, mum, Penny, and seven-year-old sister Holly.

I had a watched a video before I went to Thailand and as soon as I got on the beach I recognized that the sea was not going in and out but was just coming in further and further on the beach. I also noticed there was a white froth on the surface of the sea and those were the two things that I linked back to the video and I just had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

I had watched the video at school. My geography teacher Mr. Karney at Danes Hill School, Oxshatt, Surrey, had put it on. I was in year six. He brought a tray into the class and there was a three-storey house made out of polystyrene and we would shake it and see that it fell down. We had a discussion on earthquakes and the sea, and an earthquake in the sea creates a tsunami. It was two weeks before we went on holiday.

We were walking along the beach and I got more and more paranoid because my mum was not responding and didn’t believe me so I ran back with my sister and dad and spoke to the security guard where my dad said I thought there was going to be a tsunami, a word he was not familiar with. In the meantime my mum had come running back and we were all screaming and that’s when the wall of water came up.

The security guard at that point received a message saying there was a tsunami in Indonesia and it was on its way. When I was on the beach I was getting hysterical and people overheard and then when we got the message from the security guard that there was one on the way that’s when everyone on the beach just ran.

Luckily we ran towards the hotel and we went to the lobby which was on the third floor from which you could see the waves coming in and it was manic, everyone grabbing their kids and going up to their rooms to get their passports. They wanted to leave and all the local staff were pleading with us to stay.

We were worried that there was going to be another tsunami coming. We went to a hotel that wasn’t completed on higher ground and they looked after us for a day and I remember looking at their television and the death toll just kept going up.

We saw people coming in who had lost family. We got people from other parts of Thailand coming in. I remember seeing this girl who had scars all over and she had got caught up in the waves. The beach was wrecked. The pool was wrecked.

In early 2005, we got home and I remember being on the plane and security people came on. They asked who had lost people in the tsunami and many put their hands up. That’s when the full reality of it sank home. These were the people coming back to England, so how much worse was it for local people who had lost so many loved ones. The fact that I remember that Thai Airways flight now obviously means it had a massive impact.

We got home and then it properly hit that we had been through something traumatic. My mum was definitely traumatized. We got home and it was the top story everywhere and it was still in the news. There were journalists on our doorstep. That wasn’t very nice. No one knew the extent of what we had been through.

I had letters coming in seven or eight letters months later from people saying things like how they had named their dog after me. My story appealed because it was one story that was positive out of all the devastation. There was the fact that as a 10-year-old I knew about this particular disaster risk and my mum and dad did not, and I had learned about it at school.

My school friends could not believe I was there. It made the whole story much more interesting. Mr. Karney could not believe it either that something like that could happen so close to when he had taught me the lesson.

When Bill Clinton became the UN Special Envoy for the Tsunami, I was brought over to Washington to meet him. As a volunteer with the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the big lesson for me from the Indian Ocean Tsunami is how important it is to educate children about natural hazards and disaster risk. Children can pass on what they learn at school to their parents and others in their communities.

I know now that over 60 million children are affected every year mainly by floods, storms and earthquakes so they are valuable eye-witnesses to disasters and should be used as agents of change. Children are creative and will always come up with good ideas about how to reduce risk in their communities if they are engaged.

We also need to make sure that schools are safe from floods and earthquakes and I hope that children and youth will be able to lobby for this at the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction next March in Japan.

The last world conference was a few weeks after the tsunami and it put the spotlight on all the crazy ways we increase risk by building in the wrong places or using poor quality materials but not enough has been done about making schools safe from disasters. Thousands of schoolchildren have died in earthquakes in the last ten years.

We try to go back to Thailand every Christmas. A hotel my grandparents once stayed in was destroyed in the tsunami. Our one survived. It’s bigger now. We always have a chat with the security guard who is still there on the beach. There are signs now warning about the danger and showing the evacuation route. It’s a day we will always remember.

Tilly Smith, now 20, earned the nickname ‘The Angel of the Beach’ thanks to her quick thinking during the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, and has continued to act as an advocate for disaster risk education since then.