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Ten Years Later: Remembering the Deadliest Tsunami in Recorded History

In the wake of the 9.1 magnitude megathrust earthquake that struck off the western coastline of Sumatra, Indonesia, 10 years ago, a colossal wave propagated from its epicenter, destroying coastal infrastructure and claiming nearly 230,000 lives across 15 countries.

"It still affects me most days," Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean Tsunami survivor Dwayne Meadows said.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami is the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, and it caused an estimated $14 billion in damages at the time.

"Despite the horrors, I'm glad I was able to witness the event," Meadows said. "I saw the best of humanity that day."

The catastrophic impacts suffered following the wave acted as a catalyst for an improved understanding of tsunami events and have altered the way research and preparation is conducted today, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Tsunami Researcher Mike Angove said.

Meadows shared his story with reporters and NOAA officials during a Dec. 8 briefing held for the 10-year anniversary of the event.

While visiting a friend from graduate school during vacation in December 2004, Meadows was staying in a beach-front bungalow located in one of the most severely impacted areas of Thailand.

He recalled that moments before the tsunami hit, the ocean began to recede, leaving fish exposed on the sea floor while an ominous white line sat on the horizon. Many people walking along the beach were unaware what was happening at the time, he said.

Moments later, the catastrophic surge crashed against the shoreline and ripped apart his bungalow.

"I kind of said my goodbyes," Meadows said, recalling the powerful, churning currents holding him beneath the wave before he was pushed back to the water's surface.

Helpless to fight against the raging power of the tsunami, Meadows was forced into riding a massive white-water flow through a forest, while speeding past the tops of palm trees.

"I slammed into a tree; more debris crushed my back," he recalled. "I thought I would die there, so I pushed into the flow."

As the waters calmed, he found himself a quarter of a mile out to sea, gazing upon a devastated coastline.

"All the bungalows were destroyed; three story concrete hotels were gutted," Meadows said. "There were screams and victims everywhere."

Meadows was able to make a return to land as another wave loomed behind him. The second wave was set on a path for the struggling survivors who frantically sought out their family and friends along the ravaged beach, he said.

"I knew we wouldn't survive another wave and led a ragtag group inshore, pushing some to leave their dead behind," he recalled. "We just outran the next wave."

For the rest of the day, Meadows used his knowledge and training to administer first aid to other tsunami victims. He currently serves as a program coordinator and an endangered species biologist for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service located in Silver Springs, Maryland.

The 2004 earthquake, which currently ranks as the third strongest quake in recorded history, and the deadly surge that followed not only altered the lives of those impacted that day, it changed the way researchers study tsunamis, according to Angove.

The quake originated from a subduction zone located off Sumatra's western coastline. It created an unexpected and fatal situation for the high population region, Angove said, adding that the immense pressure that caused the quake continued to build for maybe hundreds of years.

When the quake struck, the resulting displacement of water created the tremendous wave that propagated outward in all directions, devastating the coastal regions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and other coastal countries in the Indian Ocean.

The tsunami reached an estimated maximum run up of 167 feet above sea level in some areas, he added.

In the years following the event, researchers began to focus more on the propagation of tsunami waves and improve upon their methods for predicting run up heights, threat assessments to populated areas and new education and safety measures, Angove said.

"That's really been fundamental because prior to 2004, we were very dependent on the seismic piece and there wasn't a strong effort to find the wave," he said.

In 2004, the U.S. had a total of six experimental Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoy stations in place in the Pacific.

Ten years later, a global network of 60 DART stations is now in place including 39 stations which are U.S. owned and operated.

The network monitors tsunami activity in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, according to NOAA.

In addition, NOAA's network now supports 188 surface stations, which have been upgraded to fully support tsunami warning operations. Coastal gauges are also used to gather more data for tsunami events, Angove added.

Despite the improvements in tsunami research and technology, lead time during a tsunami event is very limited, Angove said.

"In the field, we still have a problem when there is a large event right near a populated area," he said. "The time is so short; it is important to educate the public on tsunamis because there is only so much technology can deliver."

Currently, the U.S. Congress provides between $24 million and $27 million each year to NOAA's tsunami research and warning centers, Angove said.

Signage indicating tsunami inundation zones, marked evacuation routes and education on tsunami safety procedures are all essential in reducing the death toll during a tsunami event, Angove said.

"Most likely, you're going to have your day at the beach, but we want people to be in a position to react," Angove said, adding that he is hopeful that warning signs placed around beaches and marked evacuation routes spark awareness in the back of people's minds.

"Had the world been better prepared, the damage and loss [from the 2004 tsunami] could have been less," Meadows said. "Yet, we still can't fully predict tsunami waves...more people need to know the warning signs and procedures and be better prepared with supplies and skills; memories fade. Preparedness requires constant vigilance."

According to NOAA, prior to 2004, there was no functional international coordination outside the Pacific basin.

"Today, NOAA provides other countries with technical assistance, improved preparedness and capacities, and equipment to detect and communicate tsunami threats," NOAA reports. "In addition, NOAA now promotes sharing of data, best practices and policies, and has established education and training programs in several countries."

In addition, construction methods to protect buildings from tsunami events is now occurring in some coastal areas, Angove added.

"[We] exist to help people survive," he said.