First of all, which gods? Chthonic, sky, water or underworld? Those of sex life, war, commerce or peace? Deities who see and act upon things in the short or long run? Because, as mentioned before, as a polytheist I believe there are many and diverse things above, around and bellow me, with different agendas, views on the world and humans, and none with full control of everything. So before asking the Gods why They allowed such a tragedy to happen or didn’t They save everyone, one should ask which deities were at work, if any.
The 2004 tsunami was caused by an underwater earthquake; earthquakes are the result of accumulated energy being released, either in a volcanic vent or the Earth’s crust, which basically floats on a mantle bellow the surface. What causes the different plates that form the crust to move is not certain: it could be the mantle convection, which carries heat from the interior to the Earth’s surface, gravity or the planet’s rotation. In any case, to stop earthquakes from happening, one would have to stop the tectonic plates from moving and that means deleting one or more things that make life possible. So what happened in 2004 was the consequence of the larger scheme of things.
In religious terms, this translates into deities such as the Roman Vulcan (God of fire and underground warmth) and the Great Mother Earth Herself. She sees things in the long run, as Her concern is that greater balance of life and not necessarily the short life spans of individuals. And that means that, just like animals and plants are killed by natural predators, diseases or storms, the necessary movements of the planet’s body will also inevitably cause victims. The long term sustainability of life requires the sacrifice of short term lives. It may not be fair from the point of view of the victim, but greater Powers care for the greater scheme of things and They’ll do what They must to preserve it. We often see reality in terms of 100 or 150 years (our lives and those of our children); the Earth sees things in terms of thousands if not millions of years.
Which again brings us to the question of which gods. If what we perceive as natural disasters are part of the Great Mother’s natural rhythms and will necessarily claim lives in the name of the preservation of Life, does this mean that no god could have helped the people in southeast Asia in 2004? No, it doesn’t. Think of all those who did survive the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Those who never went to the beach because they fell asleep in the hotel room; those who were saved by the animals’ behavior, who did not fall when running away or found themselves doing it faster than they ever imagined they could; those who had a bad feeling, who had their plans disrupted by some last minute inconvenience and survived because of it, those who managed to hold on to something strong enough or were carried by the water to a place where they grabbed onto a rock, a trunk or whatever allowed them to survive. That’s where you’ll find the saving action of gods, wights, ancestors or just plain fate at work. They may not have been able to help everyone, bound by Their own limitations, those of humans lives or the necessary consequences of several causes – a natural event like the one in 2004 is bound to cause victims! Some gods may not even have had interest in saving people. That’s what I meant with different powers having different takes on humans and our way of seeing things, which makes things a lot more complex and, to some extent, a lot less comforting than an almighty and loving god being in charge of everything.
Some may ask what’s the use of gods that are limited in their ability to help people, to which I reply by asking about the usefulness of a doctor: he will help you keeping your health, but with limited success if you don’t do your “homework”; he will cure or treat your illnesses, even if some treatments may be painful and prolonged; and one day, inevitably, he won’t be able to stop you from dying. Is a doctor useless because of that? And how about a good friend who will care for you, be by your side to the best of his abilities, but who will nonetheless be limited in his resources, availability and skills. Is he useless because of that? I don’t think so, and neither do I think my Gods are of no use.