Birch Bay resident recounts resilience and faith in memoir “Surviving a Tsunami at Thirteen"


At the age of 13, Birch Bay resident Monica Ribeiro Connelly found herself alone in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Nearly 19 years of reflection later, her memoir was published this September.

In the early morning hours of December 26, 2004, the resort beaches of Khao Lak, Thailand were busy for tourism season when the disaster informally named the Boxing Day Tsunami made landfall.

The Ribeiro family were among those on the beach. Ribeiro Connelly, her mother, Beinha, and her father, JJ, were on vacation from their home in Macau, China. They did not feel the 9.1 magnitude earthquake originating roughly 500 miles away off the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia. Within two hours, however, they felt its devastating aftereffects. 

“We were close enough for the worst possible scenario because there was no warning,” she said. “There were no authorities and no alarm bells. It was just another day, and then, the water was gone. Being a foreigner, you don’t know that’s not normal.”

She emerged from the disaster battered but alive. Her parents became two of the estimated 227,899 people who lost their lives in what is now known as the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, according to NOAA.

Shaken from her experiences and loss, Ribeiro Connelly returned to live with her remaining family in her home country of Portugal, a nation with more oceanic territory than land.

“I have always loved the ocean and that never changed, which is something people can’t always understand,” she said. “The ocean is very present in my culture overall.”

Almost immediately after the disaster, she felt compelled to write down her experience initially as part of her own healing process.

“At first it was just so I didn’t forget all the details. I already struggled with a few things, because the days blurred together,” she said. “I kept writing in the years after, and there was so much that I was carrying. It felt good to release it on the page.”

Now, almost two decades after the disaster, Ribeiro Connelly is ready to share her experience in a book. “Surviving A Tsunami At Thirteen: A Memoir” recounts her physical and spiritual experiences in the disaster and its aftermath. The 230-page independently published book, categorized as spiritual self-help on Amazon, retails for $18.99 before shipping.

Living in Macau, Ribeiro Connelly said the religious diversity of the community allowed her to always be curious about faith, although it was never a dominant part of her upbringing. She remembered her father’s open opposition toward Catholicism, the primary religion in Portugal.

In the midst of the disaster, Ribeiro Connelly said she fought all reservations and assumptions she may have had in regard to faith and called out for help.

“I remember thinking, ‘What do I have to lose?’ I literally had nothing to lose, and still, I was resisting the thought. And then I finally called out and God saved me,” she said.

Through her faith, Ribeiro Connelly was able to break out of her comfort zone as an extreme introvert and share her story with others. She has appeared on TV in Portugal and recently attended several community events to promote her book.

After finding life coaching, she said it felt like her opportunity to give others the support she wished she had access to.

“When I share my story, I’m taking the spotlight, which is uncomfortable, but then when I’m coaching, it’s the other person in the spotlight and I’m guiding them,” she said.

Ribeiro Connelly shared her writing and publishing process with her followers on Instagram, @monicarconnellycoaching. The feedback so far has been positive and encouraging, she said, adding that the book is for everyone, regardless of faith. 

“As long as you keep in mind my perspective and what I experienced, you don’t have to believe what I believe,” she said, adding that she was hesitant to include the religious aspect of her story but realized it wouldn’t be complete without it.

Ten years after the tsunami, in 2014, she revisited Khao Lak in hopes of finding peace. She returned to the same resort steps she remembered from the disaster.

“A lot had changed, but those steps remained the same. When I stepped there it brought me back in time, 10 years before, and I felt so much strength and determination,” she said. “It’s like, I left it imprinted on the steps all those years before.”

Now a resident of Birch Bay and a member of the Protestant church Ribeiro Connelly surrounds herself with family – her two young children are named after her parents. When they are older, she plans to share memories of her parents with them.

After moving to the Pacific Northwest from West Texas for her husband’s job on the U.S./Canada border, Ribeiro Connelly was overjoyed to be near the water once again.

“I remember my son’s first time seeing the ocean and him running in the water,” she said. “I was so happy like, ‘yes, this is what has been missing,’” adding that the shallow water makes the perfect place for her children to learn and play.

With her first book out now, Ribeiro Connelly said she hasn’t quite taken a breath to think about what is next, although she hopes to expand her work as a life coach.

“My mission is just to tell my story – period, whatever comes from it comes, and if nothing comes from it, then that’s fine, too,” she said. “I have no expectations, and yet I’m open to anything.”


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