Saturday, December 27, 2014

Remembering Tsunami ‘26th December 2004’

It seems like distant past now, we were in Vishakhapatnam living in a multi-story, my daughter was barely two year old. It was morning time and suddenly without warning the building started shaking violently. Deep into the windy winters in the coastal region, the azure water of sea churned menacingly as the Earth shook beneath our feet. People ran out of buildings and were alarmed by the violence of the earthquake. Always while visiting the beach I would observe how the colour of sea would turn dark as the tides changed and each time I would wonder how vulnerable the people living on the coasts were. On 26th December 2004, I realized my apprehensions were not misplaced. Who would have imagined that gigantic waves 115 feet high would turn the coastal region across 14 countries, battered by brutal Tsunami, into grieving grounds as the disaster left 220,000 humans dead in its wake. For months the sea water carried the stench of the dead bodies and the pain washed over the land. After a few days while visiting the market I watched a mentally unstable women grieving, I stopped to listen to her and she whispered to me, “I can hear them all night, they are everywhere and they are grieving.” I asked her who she was talking about. She confided, “These spirits, they are all around wailing all night, washed ashore by the troubled waters.” I could never forget the pain that was almost palpable all around those days. Those who face the brutal force of nature were unprepared as the sea advanced inland wiping away buildings, drowning thousands, with churning waters that carried debris that destroyed everything in its path. This was something that generations of people living across the coasts had never seen, there was no History of this scale of devastation, needless to say there was no preparedness, nor a way to escape the inevitable death and destruction. Andaman and Nicobar, which lay near the epicenter bore the brunt as land disappeared under the sea water. As an earthquake is unpredictable, the Tsunami waves that inundated the islands caught the population there unaware, there was no time to save the possessions and within a few hours everything that people owned, their life’s savings, their homes, their identity, everything were gone. There was no hope and there were no directions that could help them regain some semblance of life. An experienced Doctor narrated his experience about the state of absolute chaos, the team was dispatched by the Government of India to extend medical help to those in need and as the aftershocks shook the land beneath the feet, the Doctors observed that there was no potable water available, due to the decaying carcasses and salt water that had rushed inland the water sources were contaminated, all around the people with broken limbs and shattered raw emotions demanded attention. There was need everywhere but there were no means to reach, assure and heal people in need. The very magnitude of the earthquake measuring 9.3 was unheard of, as was the scale of devastation it caused, these were humans that had lost loved ones and all that they had built their lives around, were they supposed to look for their family, seek their lost homes, seek identity or to struggle for survival? Many states in India were ravaged by these killer waves, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry, Andam and Nicobar islands. Later, while working with an American Professor I came across one of his papers where he talks about a man who had learned about early warning in his village and had the presence of mind to warn his village about a possible Tsunami as the massive earthquake had struck Aceh in Indonesia, which was opposite to his village, Nallavadu in Tamil Nadu. He called his sister warning about a possible Tsunami asking her to warn the villagers about the possibility of flooding. Th is early warning by Vijaykumar Gunasekaran saved lives, there was not a single death in their village and in surrounding areas where they could spread this warning. The livestock was saved, the villagers could also save their boats and thus their livelihood. Much later while I was involved in some livelihood projects that were implemented in the regions affected by disaster in Andhra Pradesh, I realized the power of preparedness, of being aware that at any moment without prior warning a disaster can strike. Also about the aftermath where in absence of support, without livelihood how lives can drift towards destitution. Small steps that I read about, the ice buckets for keeping fish fresh for longer period, the platforms to dry fish hygienically made a difference. I am sure these activities brings the communities closer and instills confidence in difficult times. As the World mourns the death and devastation caused by Tsunami ten years ago, it is time to reflect on how humanity has enabled the vulnerable communities in being prepared for natural and manmade disasters. It is time to take stock as we pray for the souls of those who lost their lives in this unprecedented disaster and to use ICT and other means to empower all the people who are at risk both physically and psychologically.

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