Documenting the Disaster

"No question, tsunami survivors today are in a fragile state."
Writer: 
January 31, 2005

San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok to Chennai to Madurai, then by SUV to Kanyakumari. After more than eighty hours of fitful travel since departing San Francisco on New Year’s Day, I finally reached the tsunami-affected shoreline at the southern tip of India--reminded once again, rarely is it a straight line to the disaster zone.

For the past four years, I have worked as a freelance photojournalist and consultant to international aid organizations. Disaster zones like Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne, war-torn communities like the West Bank during the second Intifada, and poverty-stricken countries like Ethiopia between famines: all have been my workplace.

Immediately after news of the tsunami broke, Seton Institute, a California-based relief organization, requested that I travel to South India to document the needs of survivors and the work of Catholic Sisters in the relief effort. Seton intended to launch an appeal for donations and required a firsthand account of the scene on the ground.

They linked me up with Sister Flory Parinalam and the Sisters of St. Ann of Luzern, a congregation with thirty-two health facilities, three nursing schools, and more than 200 nurses all within a day’s travel from the devastated coastline. Together, Sister Flory and I toured the coastal villages and relief camps of the Kanyakumari District, where more than 800 people perished and 90,000 people were displaced.

I met one grandmother who lived because when the waves hit she was out buying flowers for her eldest daughter’s upcoming wedding, while her two daughters and three grandchildren remained in the home and perished. One man I spoke to grabbed hold of a coconut tree and held on for life, but described how another man smacked into the trunk of a nearby tree and died. Of course, physical strength, strong swimming skill, early warning, and good judgment increased one’s chances of survival. But it was luck and proximity to the coastline more than anything else that seemed to govern a person’s fate.

By the time I reached the shoreline near Kanyakumari on January 5, the Indian government and numerous aid organizations had done an admirable job of providing for the emergency material needs (food, water, medicine, and shelter) of survivors. Fears of widespread disease also quietly disappeared under the blanket of white bleaching powder sprinkled along the sides of the dirt streets each morning.

The emergency response I observed in South India did not represent the effectiveness of the relief effort around other parts of the Indian Ocean. Each region had its unique challenges. News reports highlighted how destructive elements like politics, corruption, child-trafficking, and civil war impeded the relief campaigns in parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Nor did the seemingly well-coordinated response in South India mirror that of other disaster areas I have witnessed, starting with Gonaives, Haiti, following Tropical Storm Jeanne last September. While the statistics of loss in Gonaives (3,000 dead, 200,000 displaced) exceeded those in Kanyakumari District, the efficacy of the relief effort certainly did not.

It is difficult to compare fairly the relief efforts for different disasters. Geography, culture, logistics, and the cause of the disaster are never the same. That said, the obvious difference that struck me was survivor temperament. Long cursed as one of the most gang-ridden cities in the Western Hemisphere, Gonaives was a violent, desperate place even on its best days. So when aid did not immediately arrive in this city after the storm, the people, not surprisingly, took up arms for their survival. The first relief workers to enter the city fled for their lives, leaving whatever aid they had brought to the most hard-nosed bandits--survival of the fittest in its most basic form. From that point forward, the relief effort struggled to regain its footing and, as a consequence, the Haitian people’s suffering intensified.

By comparison, disgruntled fishermen in Kanyakumari, unhappy with their government’s slow response to their needs, organized street protests to voice their complaints. Still, full-scale civil unrest seemed unlikely. Yes, they raised their voices, drank too much, and were justifiably angry, but not at the outside world, as were the Haitians. Rather, at God and the ocean.

The effort to bring peace and solace to the suffering souls in the relief camps has proved to be a far more daunting task than the provision of material assistance. The emotions of those gathering in the camps fluctuated from deeply despondent to hysterically emotional--vacant stares intertwined with intense wails of grief.

In this predominantly Catholic population of “fisher-folk,” many questioned God and His intentions: “How could God have let this happen? What did we do to deserve this punishment?” Their faith had been shaken to the core.

“We do not know God’s plan. We do not have an answer,” Sister Flory and others countered. “We can only offer an article of faith. But remember the way so many people were saved miraculously; that is also a sign of God’s goodness.”

The fishing community distrusted nature. “But why did the sea--our friend and giver of life for as long as we have been alive--betray us?” they asked. “It took our children, our homes and our livelihoods. We will never go back to the sea.”

Counselors responded with a scientific explanation that described how an earthquake triggered the waves. They assured them that an early-warning system in the Indian Ocean would soon be in place and that it would be safe to return to the sea. But when the sounds of an approaching train, a passing plane, or the gentle roar of the seashore continue to shoot chills of panic down the spine, it is clear the fright remains.

No question, tsunami survivors today are in a fragile state. Most relief experts agree that it will take years for these people to rebuild their lives and communities. Relief agencies are committed to a long-range rehabilitation plan, as much as five to ten years out. They hope that their donors are, too.

Peter Lemieux