Geography lesson that saved many lives: The story of Tilly Smith and Asian Tsunami of 2004

ISDR image

Today, 10 October, is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The theme this year is “Disaster Risk Reduction Begins at School”.

This year’s campaign, spearheaded by UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction aims “to inform and mobilize Governments, communities and individuals to ensure that disaster risk reduction is fully integrated into school curricula in high risk countries and that school buildings are built or retrofitted to withstand natural hazards.”

Buried beneath this development jargon that UN agencies are so fond of is something very important: sensitising the next generation about living with hazards can help make our societies better able to cope with disasters when they do happen.

And you never know when an informed and alert school kid could save the day — and many lives.

A good example came from Thailand when the Indian Ocean Tsunami arrived without any public warning on 26 December 2004.


Tilly Smith, an eleven-year-old British schoolgirl, was on holiday on Maikhao Beach in Thailand with her family when the tsunami hit. Just a few weeks earlier, she had studied tsunamis in school — and immediately recognized the signs of the receding sea as a sign of an impending disaster. She warned her parents, which led to all the hotel guests being rapidly moved from the beach.

This simple, timely action by a single schoolgirl saved the life of dozens of people. Tilly’s story highlights the critical importance of basic education in preventing the tragic impacts of natural disasters.

Watch her story on YouTube:

This 5 min video, produced by UN/ISDR in 2005, is available in English, French and Spanish. Watch the English version on their website, which is now hidden under all that bureaucratic babble:
Higher resolution WMV file – more suited for broadband Internet connections
Lower resolution WMV file – will play better on narrowband Internet connections

According to the Wikipedia, Tilly’s family have declined requests to be interviewed by commercial and national broadcasters, but Tilly has appeared at the United Nations in November 2005, meeting Bill Clinton the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief, and at the first year anniversary in Phuket, as part of the campaign to highlight the importance of education.

In December 2005, Tilly was named “Child of the Year” by the French magazine Mon Quotidien. On the First Anniversary of the Official Tsunami Commemorations at Khao Lak, Thailand on December 26, 2005, she was given the honour of closing the ceremony with a speech to thousands of spectators which read in part:

National Geographic online: Tsunami Family saved by school girl’s geography lesson

BBC Online: Award for tsunami warning pupil

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

4 thoughts on “Geography lesson that saved many lives: The story of Tilly Smith and Asian Tsunami of 2004”

  1. Hi Nalaka: This is such a positive story about such a large scale calamity – thanks for dredging it up! Tilly Smith is a smart girl not only because she applied her lesson, but because she has opted not to be interviewed by mainstream media!

    I wonder if anyone has thanked her geography teacher who triggered all this. What a wonder a good teacher can inspire!

  2. One Tilly Smith (and her good teacher) is worth more than all the UN agencies combined! After the tsunami the UNESCOs, UNDPs and ITUs ran around like headless chicken, trying to put up Indian Ocean tsunami warning systems. 4 years have passed and what has happened? How much money has been spent on their endless meetings and feasibility reports? The UN collected so much money from the gullible donor governments of the west and east after the tsunami. But what have they done with this money?

  3. Thumbs up for Tilly and her geography teacher. Infact this girl should be awarded every year and given a free schorlar.

  4. Bravo! Dear Tilly Smith and Mr.Kearney.This is the Power of Education.I also teach Geography and you inspire me and my colleagues.
    Manjusha Gupta

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