Disaster revisited: The 2004 tsunami

Editor’s note: This is the last in a four-part series looking at recent humanitarian crises.

Displaced families in Sri Lanka were put in temporary housing after the 2004 tsunami. The Red Cross estimates that 11,000 houses are still needed to house all of the displaced victims of the 2004 disaster.

Photo courtesy of Gertrude Hewapathirana

Ashley Goetz

Displaced families in Sri Lanka were put in temporary housing after the 2004 tsunami. The Red Cross estimates that 11,000 houses are still needed to house all of the displaced victims of the 2004 disaster. Photo courtesy of Gertrude Hewapathirana

âÄúTen, nine, eight, seven âĦâÄù Nawanan stopped his work and shouted along. âÄúSix, five, four, three âĦâÄù EveryoneâÄôs eyes were glued to the clock, it wouldnâÄôt be long now. âÄúTwo, one, Happy New Years!âÄù All of the volunteers in the Phuket, Thailand police station shouted in unison on Jan. 1, 2005, a momentary reprieve in their struggle to update medical databases for a government trying to keep track of its people. The volunteers were keeping tabs on ThailandâÄôs sick and injured who were being nursed after the devastating tsunami struck just six days earlier. For University of Minnesota student Nawanan Theera-ampornpunt , and the room full of volunteers, the celebration was short lived, and in a moment they were back to work, just like they had been for 20 hours a day since the waves crushed on their countryâÄôs shoreline on Dec. 26, 2004. His efforts were part of a transnational outpouring of help into the region, involving work by students, governments and nonprofit organizations, which has slowed but continues today, despite a lack of public acknowledgement. Whether or not the disaster is front page news, some people still live in the realities it brought to a region: tent villages, far from medical facilities and without utilities.

The initial response

In a warehouse in Santa Barbara, Calif. lies more than $60 million in medical supplies from cosmetics to name brand drugs, all donated from pharmaceutical companies. And on Dec. 26, 2004 when the calls started coming in about the disaster, Direct Relief International started a relief campaign of almost $50 million, sending many of these supplies and donations to organizations on the ground in Southeast Asia. Within hours of the disaster, groups like Direct Relief International and the American Red Cross were sending volunteers and aid to the region to support the 300,000 displaced and the 200,000 dead or dying . NGOs and local governments initiated their emergency programs, providing food and medical care immediately, while also setting up tent communities throughout the region, many of which havenâÄôt disappeared. University student Theera-ampornpunt , now the treasurer of the Thai Student Association here, returned to his hometown of Phuket as one of at least 20 volunteers who rushed into southern Thailand to help the government keep track of the tsunamiâÄôs victims, many of which came from his home town. âÄúEverything near the beaches was gone, about a kilometer into the shore,âÄù he said. He oversaw the volunteersâÄô work, gathering hospital data from existing hospitals to accompany victims as they were transferred for care throughout the country. Meanwhile, millions of dollars were being pumped into non-governmental organizations that were sending hundreds of volunteers and supplies into the region, a process that has slowed down drastically. Meanwhile closer to home, Gertrude Hewapathirana , then a graduate student at the University, lost sleep looking for ways to help out families in Sri Lanka whose homes had been demolished by the tsunami. Hewapathirana, a Sri Lanka native, was handling a full graduate course load when she created the Sri Lankan Student Association with the sole purpose of providing a few displaced Sri Lankan families with homes. Before her studies at the University, Hewapathirana taught business in Sri Lanka and visited many of the countryâÄôs coastal regions, teaching villagers how to start their own businesses, many of which she concedes were likely destroyed by the tsunami. Her association, with the help of Sojourn Campus Church, raised $14,000, enough to build five houses on the inland, and in January 2007, shortly after the two-year anniversary of the disaster, Hewapathirana went back to hand over the keys to the new families.

âÄúThe waves of the tsunami are still breaking over the countryâÄù

What Hewapathirana saw is what disaster relief organizations in the region have been dealing with for more than four years: displaced populations, some with little access to permanent shelter, water and medical aid. Disaster relief breaks down into two main phases: the emergency response and the longer-term recovery, Elizabeth Whelan, Red Cross program officer, said. The Red CrossâÄôs emergency response was focused around shelter, setting up temporary tents for those whose houses were destroyed along the coasts of affected countries. Direct Relief InternationalâÄôs response centered on getting local clinics medical supplies. Now the relief efforts have changed direction: trying to establish long term medical aid in the regions. The 250 members of the Red Cross in Southeast Asia centered their programming on preparing communities for possible future disasters and getting safe drinking water to the communities. Efforts by DRI refocused on increased medical assistance, like a solar-powered maternity clinic in Meulaboah, Indonesia , and medical vans transporting doctors and aid to the many tent camps that still populate coastal regions. But both organizations recognize the fate of all disaster relief efforts âÄî the public has lost touch and organizational money is being sent to newer disasters, limiting the potential any one organization can have in a region. The Red Cross only committed to five years of aid in Southeast Asia after the tsunami, Miller said, and many people in the organization wish the group was staying longer. âÄúI think media is one big player, but funding is huge. You can only go as far as your funding goes,âÄù she said. Lindsey Pollaczek , a program officer for Direct Relief International, said one of the maternity clinicâÄôs workers said, âÄúthe waves of the tsunami are still crashing all over the country,âÄù but Pollaczek added many NGOs have been leaving the community. âÄúTheyâÄôre trying to hand [the efforts] over to elected officials,âÄù she said. âÄúWe donâÄôt really have plans to pull out.âÄù

New coastline, new homes

Though not all people are resettled, some areas have seen redevelopment and hope-filled growth. When University student Theera-ampornpunt went back to his hometown of Phuket he saw a rebirth of the cityâÄôs coastline where the destruction of 2004 used to be. âÄúI think it might be better now, considering that prior to the tsunami there was no phone,âÄù he said. âÄúAfter the tsunami, we had a chance of rebuilding the beach and making it more sustainable, having better plans.âÄù Likewise, HewapathiranaâÄôs five Minnesota Happy Shelters could be considered an improvement over pre-tsunami housing as well. When the University student handed over the keys to the fishing families in 2007, the houses passed all government building codes and included water tanks because the local ground water was polluted. But the homes still lack electricity, something that was outside of the Sri Lankan Student AssociationâÄôs budget, because the group would have had to pay for all of the wiring to the homes, which are far from a large city center. In the end, every disaster relief canâÄôt be perfect and more could always be done, admitted Rebekah Miller, an administrator for Sojourn Campus Church , which helped the student group and has moved on to supporting other efforts in Juarez, Mexico . âÄúIt needs to be brought up again,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs just so easy in American culture to move on and forget a need for a time and move on to the next big need that happens.âÄù