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Tsunami in South-East Asia

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Communiqué from India

December 27, 2004 13:22 IST - January 02, 2005 15:37 IST

Dear Rev. Father General,

My visit to the tsunami struck areas in Kanyakumari District of Tamilnadu on 26th December was highly depressing. People, normally, would have been in a festive mood even on the next day of Christmas, more so it was a Sunday this time. But it was a different story this time. There was less trace of life but only chaos, death, destruction remained. The tsunami had devastated everything. Some villages have been totally washed off, nothing remains but bodies. Bodies were strewn across the roads and those who had managed to survive had become refugees in their own land. Colachel turned into a mass graveyard. Over 400 bodies were buried in three large pits. Bodies poured in from everywhere. The waves were bringing bodies at regular intervals. The morgue at various government hospitals were overflowing with bodies. Wailing relatives were running around looking for their loved ones.

Tourists who came to Kanyakumari, mostly non-Christians, became victims of tsunami.

Everyone in all the coastal villages of Kanyakumari District is a fisherman / woman and a catholic. One does not posses land, properties here but have one’s house, jewels, boats and nets. Tsunami destroyed everything. The place was unusually and unnaturally silent. I expected to hear loud heart-rending cries. But I heard nothing. Because there was no one to cry, all those who survived, by this time, had left for safer places. There were heart-rending scenes of loss of life, damage to houses of the poor and disruption of normal life in all villages.

Affected people were accommodated in every possible place – churches, schools, mosques, marriage-halls by the same evening. People were extremely accommodative. Every camp experienced the generosity of ordinary people. It was not the government, not the corporate settings, not the social organizations but the simple, ordinary people who came forward to help them. Every camp received enough supply of food and dresses. It was proved that human action can defeat the ferocity of the nature. By the time the governments, corporate sectors and social organizations responded the local ordinary people had done their work.

I N H, under the leadership of Fr.Lazar Gnanaprakasam, took the first initiative. Two teams of priests went to these areas.

The first response was to offer a little monetary assistance to some victims, as they have lost everything, and supply of dresses to them.

Arnoldus Response: I have talked to all the SVD and S.Sp.S Provincials suggesting to them for a common ‘ Arnoldus Response. ’ We are trying to pool everything together to offer a long-term response to the victims of tsunami.

( education to orphans, construction of low-cost-houses, providing low-cost boats, fishing nets and other equipments)

These fishermen

Felix.J., svd
National JPIC Coordinator

The communication I have had with the Provincials:


The tsunami that came unannounced, that swept across the Indian Ocean did more than take a heavy toll of lives and property in the shores of Tamilnadu and Andra Pradesh. It confronted everyone with a threat to one’s very survival. The speeding walls of water that slammed into these coastal areas killed many people, washed away many houses, mercilessly snatched away many children, made many children orphans. The mercilessness of the killer tsunami was experienced by everyone. Many do not have even their loved ones to seek consolation from, to check if everything is okay. Everything went up in the waves. They have a very heavy cross to bear. Their lives are in peril there. Only panic reigns everywhere. Life in this part of the world seems to be non-existing.

I was there immediately after the disaster struck. I witnessed to some mass-burials People are placed in schools, churches, halls . . . Food, Medicine and clothing are being offered to the people. But beyond that . . . ?

Two teams of SVD Priests from India Hyderabad Province have already begun relief and rescue operations there.

May we extend a helping hand to them, as a token of our solidarity and support, that they can bounce back from this disaster ? They need to rebuild their houses, rebuild their lives. We call for cooperation from you to carry out relief and rehabilitation work in these tsunami-hit areas. We shall pool all the resources together to create an “ARNOLDUS RESPONSE ”. *

Please send your contribution to the National JPIC Coordinator.
Cheques to be addressed to ‘ Sarva Seva Sangh ’

Felix.J., svd
National JPIC Coordinator

* With kind approval from all the Provincial Superiors / Leaders


' We loved the sea. Now we hate it '

George Iype in Nagapattinam | December 27, 2004 13:22 IST

The walls of water that hit the coastal district of Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu have brought in devastating scenes of death and destruction.

Nagapattinam used to be a bustling town till the waves crashed home on Sunday. It now accounts for the most number of deaths in India due to the tsunamis. The waves have calmed, but they are bringing in bodies of children, women, fishermen and tourists. Bodies are also being brought out of the debris of the destroyed houses and shops. Bodies of some children who were playing cricket when the waves rushed in were extricated from fallen houses and trees. The morgue at the Nagapattinam government hospital is overflowing with bodies. Wailing relatives are running around looking for their loved ones.

"We have lost count of the bodies. This is for the first time that Nagapattinam has seen so many deaths," says K Srimurugappan, a hospital attendant.

Just outside the small town, across the district, fishermen have poignant tales to tell.

"We loved the sea. We lived by the sea. Now we hate seeing this sea," says K Mahalingam, who lost his eight boats, scores of fishermen and four of his relatives. Mahalingam is lucky to survive. He was supposed to fish, but a viral fever prevented him. But around 20 fishermen he employed went in, as usual. "They have not returned. I do not know whether they will ever return now," cries Mahalingam. "I have lost eight boats. I have lost everything. The sea has destroyed our lives forever," Mahalingam says.

Across Nagapattinam, similar tales of disaster are pouring in. Most of those who have lost their loved ones are fishermen.

According to the district administration, which is continuing with the rescue operations, the number of casualties among fishermen is the highest in Nagapattinam. "Lots of fishing hamlets have been washed away as the seawater entered nearly two kilometres into the land," says P K Elangovan, an official coordinating rescue and relief operations.

A large number of people have been accommodated in government offices, schools and kalyana mandapams (marriage halls) belonging to various religious shrines.

"The biggest effort now is to identify the bodies. It is going to be a huge task," a doctor at the hospital said.

Our heroes: Colachel's father figure

Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari | December 31, 2004 03:34 IST

Father Stanley, the chief parish priest of Our Lady of Presentation in Colachel, Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu is very busy with relief operations.

His landline and mobile phones ring constantly. His office is full of people seeking help. The revenue department has entrusted Father Stanley with the task of distributing money to the displaced, at his office inside St Mary's School, which has become a relief camp.

Busy as he was, he took out some time to talk to rediff.com about the tragedy and relief work:

I was in church that morning. When I saw people running helter-skelter, I knew something was wrong.

As people's houses had been washed away, I invited them to our school. The first day, it was very difficult to provide food to the refuges, but we managed. The next day, help started pouring in and all we had to do was organise everything.
Volunteers from far and near had come to offer their services. First, we noted down the names of family members and their house numbers. Then we took down the names of the dead. We still haven't been able to tabulate the names of those missing, but will do that too.

The government accepted our register of affected persons and that helped a lot. We gave a list to the revenue department after making a copy for ourselves. We had given tokens to the affected persons. One of the volunteers always sits with government officials when they distribute financial aid or any other assistance, to make sure that only affected persons got the relief material.

On Thursday morning, the Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank brought food for 3,000 people. I wish they had brought them in packets because distributing it became a big problem. But we managed.

Some people have come here saying there is no food in their villages. There is plenty of food now, but no containers to send them to the villages. I told one of my colleagues to do something about it.

We have to rebuild their houses and help the villagers get back to work. Till then, they will need help. Aid is coming in, all we have to do is see that it reaches the people.

It was 1600 IST. He had not eaten a morsel since morning. He was feeling faint. What else would you expect to happen to a man who has slept for only an hour-and-a-half every night since the tragedy?

He headed for the convent to have a meal. On the way, many people stopped him to narrate their problems. Some wanted food, others money; one wanted an ambulance. Father Stanley didn't tell them he was hungry or faint, just assured them he would be back in 10 minutes.

Tamil Nadu limping back to normal; toll 6,238

December 31, 2004 22:30 IST

The situation in several parts of Tamil Nadu's tsunami-hit coastal areas is limping back to normal five days after disaster struck claiming 6,238 lives.

The administration and civic authorities are now busy undertaking relief work.

On Friday, a top official put the toll at 6,238 with Nagapattinam district accounting for 4,379 deaths, closely followed by Kanyakumari (808), Cuddalore (590) and Chennai city (206). The other nine affected districts accounted for the rest. However, many are still listed as missing.

The tsunami also injured 2,730 people besides damage over 85,000 houses and huts, affecting a population of 672,000 in 396 villages and colonies.

Meanwhile, reports reaching Chennai said several ministers were supervising relief work in the affected districts. Among other things, they were distributing rice, blankets, sarees and dhoties promised by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

In the worst-hit Nagapattinam district, an 11-member relief team, headed by Minister for Public Works Panneerselvam, had been appointed to supervise relief operations
In Chennai, civic authorities were sprucing up the Marina Beach, which was a scene of destruction. Nearly 1,500 workers were pressed into service on Thursday and Friday to clean the beach, re-lay the roads nearby and restore snapped communication wires.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people belonging to tsunami-hit Nochikuppam area blocked the main road disrupting traffic for nearly two hours protesting against lack of relief.

They were complaining that while officials had distributed relief materials in nearby Srinivasapuram, which was also affected, it was not being made available to them.

The dispersed after senior state government officials, including District Collector V Kannuchamy, rushed to the spot and promised to provide relief.

A picture of hell, and no kerosene

January 01, 2005 rediffmail.com

It's five kilometres of hell, and it's right here at Nagapattinam.

Kaviarsi studies - make that studied - in the sixth standard. Her schoolbooks lie a short distance away, and besides them lies a doll.

The girl herself lies on a makeshift pyre on what used to be her home, her face totally blackened, her neck twisted upwards, the skin peeling off her legs like torn stockings. There is a large empty container of Pepsi lying just besides her, and four other bodies. And besides the pyre, towards the sunset, are five long kilometers of slushy wasteland strewn with dead bodies.

It wasn't like this five days ago. We - me and two companions - are at a part of Nagapattinam called Akkarakadai, where a prosperous fishing community lived. This five-kilometre-long stretch of land was filled with houses, and had at its heart a bustling Sunday marketplace. The people here were well off - some of them had expensive fishing launches costing many lakhs of rupees. Then the tsunami came.

These settlements begin half a kilometre from the sea, across the road, but the tsunami swept everything away. Every single house was flooded away, all the way till the end of the stretch, and when I went there, I just saw one long expanse of slush. In the distance, there were pyres burning.

Dr Narasimhan, a man I'd wanted to meet, who heads a team of relief workers that has come down from Salem, told me when I called him that we had to walk into that expanse, beyond the pyres. "Walk towards the sunset till you find me," he said, and we did.

It took us half-an-hour to traverse the half-kilometre or so until we reached him. The ground was like quicksand in parts, and our shoes would sink in with each step and resist our attempts to lift our feet again. We came across dead bodies on the way: a young girl in a basket, her limbs akimbo, and her face, with some dried blood on it, contorted in an expression that even Damien Hirst would have found too macabre. Three feet away from her lay a woman, with a frozen look of horror on her face, etched into an eerie permanence.

"In an unprecedented situation, you need an unprecedented response"

"For the next five kilometres," Dr Narsimhan motion towards the setting sun, "you will find bodies everywhere. Only the distance you have walked so far - around half a kilometre - has been cleared of corpses. This is the furthest point till which bodies have been cleared. There is so much work to be done."

"It's five days since the tsunami happened," I say. "Why is this place so deserted, why hasn't all this been sorted?"

Dr Narasimhan sighs. "Sorted," he asks. "All that the government has been doing is lining the streets outside with bleaching powder. They are not interested in coming here, they left this to the NGOs. And look at this." He extends his hands towards me. "We're doing all the work of moving bodies with surgical gloves made of latex, which are no protection against cuts and bruises."

I had heard about this before I arrived here, in Pondicherry, where Aid workers had complained that the locals in Nagapattinam had refused to help out in clearing the bodies, and when the aid workers got down to it with their latex gloves, the bodies had started decomposing, and were difficult to manoeuvre, with a limb prone to just falling away from the rest of the corpse.

"We need heavy earth-moving equipment," he had said. "That way the bodies can be shifted en masse and given a mass burial. That is the only way to deal with this situation." Mani Shankar Aiyar, India's petroleum minister, had announced on TV four days ago that such equipment was at the top of his wishlist of aid. Then why did it not materialise? Could the government not mobilise its resources even that much?
But that need is redundant now, says Dr Narsimhan. "What we need now," he says, "is kerosene. We need to burn bodies as we come along them on this stretch, before they decompose further. And we have no kerosene. "We've been calling aid agencies and so on asking for fuel to burn the bodies with," he continues, "but we got none. We managed to file some cans of kerosene lying around some of the devastated houses, but there's no more of even that?"

"But can't the government give you kerosene?" I ask astonished.

"The government does nothing," he says. "I thought differently till I came here, but now I've seen it for myself. Everything is left to the junior IAS officers, who are in meetings all day. Ministers come, and all they want to know is how many people are dead. They don't care about relief work at all. In an unprecedented situation you need an unprecedented response. But that has not happened."

The temple without a toilet

Dr Narsimhan gets back to his work, and I look up, where a helicopter moves languidly across the sky. "That's the fifth one today," says a lady who is part of the doctor's team. "They come and 'survey' the area, which is so pointless, because you cannot actually see the dead bodies from here amid this debris. It is just a show, to reassure themselves that they're on top of things. The army officers who come here, they refuse to even touch the bodies. They just hang around aimlessly."

I ask the lady what she does, and she says that she is a journalist, but would like to remain unnamed for my story. "I have come here to help out and not report," she says. "That is more important for me." I look down, ashamed.

She has been here for three days, and I ask her why, mucky though it may be, the place doesn't have any people looking for their loved ones. "Because the entire community is wiped out," she says. "There aren't too many relatives left of the people who have died here, and those that are have become resigned to their loss." "Have you been to any of the refugee camps?" I ask her."Yes," she says. "I went to a refugee camp yesterday where there were 1,500 homeless people. And "Because the camp was based in a temple," she continues, "and you cannot build a toilet in a temple. And I'd gone there to speak to them on health issues! And they cannot even wash their hands.

"And this is not an isolated example. There are scores of refugee camps like this. I hardly call this relief work."

And how are the NGOs handling the situation, I ask. "Oh, they are doing all the work, the government is doing nothing," she says. "But even they are competitive, trying hard to stake a claim to territory." I had noticed a similar tendency when I was on my way here, with many trucks adorned with banners proclaiming the name of the relief agency involved. The organization I had chosen to travel with, Aid India, was an exception, though, working hard and sincerely to solve every problem that arose.

So why haven't the press written about this, I ask her. "The press," she snorts. "The journalists from the Hindu are all flying around with dignitaries. That is the kind of reporting they do."

The sun has set, and there is a column of smoke rising from the pyres flowing in the direction where the sun was. It is New Year's eve. I say goodbye to Narasimhan and my unnamed journalist friend, and I do not wish them a happy new year. I wish them kerosene.

Amit Varma is travelling around the disaster-affected areas in Tamil Nadu, and is writing on his experiences in his blog, India Uncut. This article has been adapted from one of his posts.

Sri Lanka saved Tuticorin district

A Ganesh Nadar in Tuticorin | January 01, 2005 03:54 IST

Day 1: Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin

From Manappadu you go north and reach Kulasekharapatinam, which houses a very famous temple dedicated to Goddess Muthumariamma.

No lives were lost in this town, nor were any houses damaged. But like in case of all fishing villages in Tuticorin district, boats and nets were damaged.

In Tuticorin, one man died of a heart attack on seeing the tsunamis.

North of Kulasekharapatnam is Tiruchendur, which has a huge temple of Lord Murugan right on the sea shore. It is one of the six abodes of Lord Murugan, who is Lord Shiva's second son. Here people say that Sri Lanka saved this district from the fury of the sea. The neighbouring island nation bore the brunt of the tsunamis.

In nearby Kayalpatnam town is the DCW factory, which is the biggest industrial establishment in the Tiruchendur Lok Sabha constituency. DCW employees have donated a day's pay to the district collector towards the chief minister's relief fund. The amount adds up to Rs 300,000.

DCW employees have also collected a lorry load of utensils and clothes from among themselves. The material was to be distributed in Idinthakarai and Colachel in Kanyakumari district.

DCW has also distributed several quintals of rice in the villages of Kayalpatnam, Kombuthurai, Amali Nagar, Alanthalai, Kulasekharapatinam and Manappadu, all of which are in Tuticorin district.

Tiruchendur MLA and state minister Anita Radhakrishnan visited Punnakayal on Friday. The village is situated where the Thambiraparani River empties into the sea. The minister came in a convoy of seven vehicles, made a lot of promises and left.

As you go north towards Tuticorin, you pass the Heavy Water Project plant and the Southern Petrochemical Industrial Corporation (SPIC) complex. It latter is the second largest fertilizer plant in Asia. Both these industries were not damaged by the tsunamis.

Tuticorin harbour was alerted a little while before the tsunamis struck. Authorities ordered all ships in the harbour out to sea, where they would be safe. The ships went out to sea and anchored at the 5km mark.

A wall of the administrative office of the harbour and water entered the ground floor of the building. The Central Industrial Security Force security post was washed away. The children's park nearby was flooded with salt water.

"The plants will be destroyed. We will have to re-plant them," said Tuticorin Port Trust Deputy Chairman Balakrishnan. The office has been cleaned up but repairs are expected to take a month and cost Rs 50 lakh.

At the other end of Tuticorin town is the fishing village of Thresapuram. On Tuesday, its residents had blocked the main road as ten boats that had gone to sea, had not returned. They dispersed only after district Superintendent of Police Sandeep Rai Rathore promised to send a helicopter to search for the boats.

The fishermen returned safely on Wednesday. They landed at Rameswaram and returned to their village by road.

On Friday afternoon, the fisherfolk were crowded in the fisheries training centre, to collect monetary assistance and rice being distributed by the state government.

The government has plans to feed them till they could go back to the sea to fish.

Saturday, rediff.com will take you northward to Ramanathapuram district and the island of Rameswaram.

Surveying the Tamil Nadu coast: Day 1

A Ganesh Nadar in Tuticorin | January 01, 2005 02:00 IST

On Thursday, this correspondent began to travel northwards from Kanyakumari to Chennai along the coast of Tamil Nadu that was on December 26 battered by tsunamis.

In Kanyakumari, tourists rise before sunrise and head for the beach to watch the sunrise; supposed to be very beautiful experience.

On Thursday morning, they were disappointed because the sky was cloudy.

Ten minutes after sunrise the cops blew their whistles and asked people to leave. You could still see clothes, slippers, shoes, and a transistor on the beach, left by people who had left in a hurry on December 26 when the tsunamis had struck.
On that day, almost a thousand people had been trapped on the Vivekananda rock memorial from 10am to 6pm. There is no official record of any death but locals say that 50 people were standing in the water when the tsunamis struck. They were all tourists, mostly Ayappa devotees.

The fury of the tsunamis can be imagined when you see the remains of a fibre boat on the rocks. It had been picked up by the tide and slammed on the rocks so hard that it had split into two.

Shopkeepers were complaining that the tourists had stopped coming and their business was in the doldrums.

Forty-two kilometres to the north is Uvari, which is famous for a shrine of St Anthony. There is also the Selvamatha church, which is in the shape of an aeroplane mounted on a ship.

Tsunamis had wrecked the boats in the town, but did not claim any human life. Houses near the beach have been constructed with cement and hence survived the onslaught.

Thursday, the entire village was empty because the cops were going around asking people to stay away from the beaches as more tsunamis were expected. The government was plying buses to take shift people inland. A fire brigade vehicle was also waiting on the shore. [But it turned out to be a false alarm]

Inbetween a large number of cars came roaring to the beach. They unloaded some men who marched to the beach. Some photographs were taken before they departed. Turned out the group was led by Social Welfare Minister S Karuppasamy and deputy speaker of the state assembly A Arunachalam. The dignitaries had come to click pictures of them being engaged in relief work.

An old man told rediff.com that 30 people had been bathing in the sea when the tsunamis struck. The waves picked them up like dolls and deposited them in the village. The dazed group then scurried away before they ran out of luck.

The local fishermen have given a list of lost boats and nets to the village administrative officer and are hoping the government will help them.

Six kilometres further is Kuttapanai. Here too, no lives were lost or houses damaged but 90% of the boats were damaged.

The fisherfolk explained that fibre boats could not be used even if there is a single hole in the hull. No material could seal the hole in such a way that it can withstand the pressure of water in the sea. They had to get a new boat. They too are waiting for government help.

Another 5km away is Kudathali village. It is about 200 feet above sea level and hence escaped the onslaught by the tsunamis.

Periathalai is a big village with 7,000 people. It is 70km from Kanyakumari. The villagers are very upset. They say that at 10am, there were only small waves in the sea. The big waves came in only at 1:30pm. What was the government doing for three-and-half hours?

They could have been warned when the tsunamis struck Kanyakumari.

Many boats have been damaged. The fishermen have not cleared the mess, waiting for the government to examine it. One boat had been flung on a house whose roof collapsed.

One man John Bosco (43) lost his life while trying to save his fibre boat. He leaves behind a wife and three daughters.

Another 10km northwards along the coast, the road is very good, is a town called Manapadu. Fishermen showed rediff.com boats strewn all over the beach. They were very angry at the false alarm on Thursday, with some saying that it had created credibility problems for the government.

The fishermen were wondering when they could go back to the sea. Fishing is the only profession they know.

By evening, rediff.com covered the three districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin.

A week after, nightmares haunt victims

January 02, 2005 15:37 IST

Traumatised by the tsunami, which devastated the southern coastline of the country, including this district, people in Nagapattinam are refusing to go back to their villages even a week after the tragedy.

Over 85,000 people have been accommodated in the 98 relief camps, set up by the administration along the 200 km long coastal belt in the district and most of them are housed in schools, closed for Christmas vacations.

With the schools scheduled to reopen soon, the administration has to find an alternative place to accommodate this huge number of people. One alternative is to house these people in cyclone relief centres but they refuse to leave as these centres are located along the coast, fearing another Tsunami strike.

"We had seen natural calamities in the past like cyclones and torrential rains. But for the first time, we are experiencing tsunamis. We have seen tidal waves in 1964, but then it did not affect us. It had wiped off Danushkodi from the map then," Rengarajan, a 70-year-old farmer said.

Even though the district was limping back to normal, it would take some time for the residents to undertake their day-to-day activities. The district's economy has been ruined by the tsunami. Farmers and fishermen, who account for 80 per cent of over 14 lakh population, have been affected.

Beach sand has entered into over two lakh acres of arable land and it would be an uphill task for the administration to bring them under cultivation for at least another two years.

The farmers were expecting a bounty this year after a gap of three years, but their hopes were dashed with torrential rains damaging standing paddy crop in November last in some parts of the district. The havoc wrought by the waves have now compounded the problem. Damage to crops and cattle are yet to be assessed.
A detailed survey would be undertaken only after officials completed immediate relief works.

Material and funds for relief works were pouring in and were in plenty. The district administration had started distributing the assistance announced by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and the work would be completed in another two days, officials said.

If the victims in the relief camps wanted to go back to their places, officials would take all efforts to enable them to do so, but would not compel them to leave the camps, officials said adding that as long as the inmates wanted, the camps would continue.

The district, which bore the brunt of the tsunami, has reported more then 6,000 deaths, with 100 bodies being recovered from the debris in the last two days.
District collector Veerashanmuga Moni said the figure was unlikely to go up as the administration had completed clearing debris and started levelling the earth. More than 500 earth levelling equipment were involved in the operations, he said, commending the army's services in this regard.

In most places, the army had to recover the bodies and organise mass burials or cremation. In most cases, entire families were wiped out and no survivors were reported.