Ten Years after the Tsunami

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on December 27 2014.

Colman's Column3

It is ten years since the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. In her book, Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala describes what happened to her at Yala: “I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual”.

At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the seabed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. A 1,200-km section of the sea floor moved. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale, lasting up to ten minutes. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.

On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with a 95-year-old friend and her son at his plantation bungalow. We were discussing the possibility of a trip to Galle on the south coast or Trincomalee in the north east, in a brief hiatus in the thirty-year conflict. Luckily, we decided to stay put in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.

A strange phenomenon occurred in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms giving.

Back in 2005, just outside Hambantota, plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that corpses had contaminated the catch. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. Broken trees littered a graveyard. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.

Orphaned furniture clogged a canal. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges. There was mud everywhere and it seemed as if the earth had halitosis. There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

On our next visit, there were fewer people at the temple. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were at the temple insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.

We distributed rice, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from our car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The latecomers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. Adversity seemed to unite people. Nature had not discriminated, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. Another woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All were dignified but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich, but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”

By this visit, the miasmic odor had gone. Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters. A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard.

Ten years ago, 20,000 soldiers assisted in relief operations. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. This was in sharp contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travellers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway were neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west.

Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. Construction of the Port of Hambantota has given the town the largest port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade..

A new international airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.

Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Rajapaksa will be running for his third term. Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.

The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government has stated that the aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.

As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone to the tsunami. In Galle, the wave took away a friend of my wife’s family. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. Her husband was inconsolable and sorry to have survived. Ten years on, he is still suffering.

Everyone can empathise with loss of a loved one – either through death, separation, rejection. Everyone knows the agony of revisiting scenes that one once shared with someone who is no longer there. Sonali Deraniyagala is still suffering. Her book is a poetic account of the bleakness of loss – she lost her parents, her husband and her two sons. She has tried to rebuild a life in Sri Lanka, London, New York – but how to live with such pain?

She also feels guilty for being alive. “Although we were only doing what we always did, and although it was those tectonic plates that slipped, I can’t rid myself of the feeling that I led them to harm when they relied on me”.