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International Impact

Voices from the future | Jake Curtis

International Impact

 The Event: In 2004, a sudden and powerful earthquake rocked the Earth beneath the Indian Ocean. The 9.1 magnitude temblor triggered a tsunami whose power measured 550 million times stronger than the atomic bomb and devastated parts of Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. An estimated 230,000 to 260,000 people lost their lives.

American Jake Curtis was just eight when the tsunami washed over Phuket, Thailand. He was on Christmas vacation with his family, away from China, where his father worked for an international company.

“I remember my family was having breakfast at the hotel, which was a mile or so from the beach,” Curtis, now a 24-year-old finance student at Utah’s Brigham Young University, says. “We noticed that the sliding door of the restaurant was rattling against the wall.”

Despite the warning signs, the family got ready to go to the beach. There, they faced yet another oddity — the ocean had receded by more than 300 feet. “The fishing boats were tilting on their side, fish flopping on the bare beach,” Curtis says. “My father was asking the locals why the water’s edge had receded so far. They didn’t have an answer.”

But soon, there was a surge of water and the reverse happened — the ocean came back.

“It was like filling your bathtub, and the force of water was coming fast toward us,” Curtis remembers. “My dad grabbed me by my t-shirt, and we let the water kind of carry us. It took us to my mom and my siblings.”

Today, Curtis calmly describes the tsunami, but he very distinctly remembers the chaos that followed. The family’s hotel had been turned into a rescue center, offering people medical attention, water and food.

“It was overwhelming — it is staying with me.,” he says. “But my family was lucky, since our concern was staying hydrated.Tthe weather was very hot. I do remember other people in panic, because most everyone was separated from their family members. They had lacerations or cuts, but they were more focused on if someone had seen their son or daughter or their husband or wife. Everyone was just trying to help each other and stay as calm as possible. There were injured people everywhere, sleeping on the pool chairs and on the floors.”

Curtis’ standing on the climate crisis hasn’t been affected by the family’s tsunami experience or other recent climate and weather disasters closer to home. For the past 12 years, the Curtis family has lived in the San Diego area, where wildfires are very common. Indeed, Curtis has seen neighbors’ houses burn on several occasions.

“I’m not incredibly educated in terms of climate change,” Curtis admits. “I’m not 100 percent convinced that people are using and abusing the environment and that it has dramatic effect on weather and climate. I do agree [though] that we should be doing everything we can to minimize and reduce the amount of negative effects on the environment.”

As for his own future, Curtis credits his international experience with having some impact on his career choices.

“I want to work for the federal government — the FBI or I was thinking about serving in the military,” he says. “I might be more drawn to these careers after living internationally and having grown my love for America. And, I think that my experience with the tsunami also affects my thinking.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss