Disaster struck with no warning out of a faultlessly clear blue sky. I was taking my morning swim around the island that my businessman-brother Geoffrey bought on a whim a decade ago and turned into a tropical paradise just 200 yards from one of the world’s most beautiful beaches on the Sri Lankan mainland.
I was a quarter way around the island when I heard my brother shouting at me, ‘‘Come back! Come back! There’s something strange happening with the sea.’’ He was swimming behind me, but closer to the shore.
I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. All seemed peaceful. There was barely a ripple in the sea.
Then I noticed that the water around me was rising, climbing up the rock walls of the island with astonishing speed. The vast circle of golden sand around Welligama Bay was disappearing rapidly, and the water had reached the level of the coastal road fringed with palm trees.
As I swam to shore, my mind was momentarily befuddled by two conflicting impressions: the idyllic blue sky and the rapidly rising waters. In less than a minute, the water level had risen at least 15 feet — but the sea itself remained calm, barely a wave in sight.
Within minutes, the beach and the area behind it had become an inland sea, rushing over the road and pouring into the flimsy houses on the other side. The speed with which it all happened seemed like a scene from the Bible, a natural phenomenon unlike anything I had experienced before.
As the waters rose at an incredible rate, I half expected to catch sight of Noah’s Ark. Instead of the Ark, I grabbed hold of a wooden catamaran that the local people used as a fishing boat. My brother jumped on the boat, next to me. We bobbed up and down on the catamaran, as the water rushed past us into the village beyond the road.
After a few minutes, the water stopped rising, and I felt it was safe to swim to the shore. What I didn’t realise was that the floodwaters would recede as dramatically as they had risen. All of a sudden, I found myself being swept out to sea with startling speed. Although I am a fairly strong swimmer, I was unable to withstand the current. The fishing boats around me had been torn from their moorings and were furiously bobbing up and down. For the first time, I felt afraid, powerless to prevent myself from being swept out to sea.
I swam in the direction of one of the loose catamarans, grabbed hold of the hull, and pulled myself to safety. My weight must have slowed the boat down and soon I was stranded on the sand.
As the water rushed out of the bay, I scrambled onto the main road. Screams and yells were coming from the houses behind the road, many of which were still half full of water, trapping the inhabitants inside. Villagers were walking dazed along the road, unable to comprehend what had taken place.
I was worried about my wife who had been on the beach at the time I went for my swim. I eventually found her walking along the road, dazed and happy to be alive. She had been trying to wade back to our island, when the water had carried her across the road and into someone’s backyard. At one point she was underwater, struggling for breath. She finally grabbed a piece of rope and climbed onto a tree, while the waters raged beneath her.
Our children were still asleep when the tidal wave struck this morning at 9:15 am. They woke up to find the bay practically drained of water and their parents walking back across the narrow channel to safety.
The waves have been raging around the island for the rest of the day — alternatively rising and receding.
It took us many hours to realise the scale of the disaster of which we had witnessed a tiny part. The road from Welligama to Galle is cut in many places. There are reports of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people missing and drowned in southern Sri Lanka. The coastal road is littered with carcasses of boats and dead dogs. Even a few dead sharks have been washed up on the road. Helicopters are flying overhead and loudspeaker vans are warning local residents to leave low-lying areas for fear of more tidal waves.
My brother’s little island — called Tapbrobane after the ancient name of Sri Lanka — is largely intact, although a piece of our gate ended up on the seashore half a mile away. His house rests on a rock 60 feet above the level of the sea, which rose a maximum of 20 feet. We have no water, and no electricity and are practically cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka. It is impossible to buy food; we are existing on cold ham and turkey sandwiches, leftovers from last night’s Christmas Dinner.
The holiday that we planned and dreamed about for many months is in ruins. We feel fortunate — fortunate to be alive.