Relief efforts under way in Sri Lanka

/ Source: NBC News

Sri Lanka, the nation hardest hit by the tidal waves that wrecked damage across Asia, reported a death toll up to 18,706 on Tuesday.  As the relief efforts begin to get underway, NBC News' Ned Colt reports from Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, on the devastation in the country.

Can you describe the scene of devastation?
Colombo is affected, but minimally compared to the rest of the country.

We took a trip down about 40 miles down the west coast this morning, which was not as  badly hit as the east coast and southern coast.

What we saw all along the waterfront, I’d say four out of five homes had been literally leveled.

Yes, these were ramshackle huts to begin with -- homes to carpenters and fishermen and others, but they said that this came out of nowhere.

They saw the water recede early on Sunday morning while many of them were having breakfast and didn’t know what it all meant. But then a few minutes later, three huge waves, at least 12 feet high, pounded over a revetment and washed through their homes, literally knocking down their homes and pushing some of them as much as a few hundred yards inland.

Down there now you can see that the telephone poles are twisted and bent. The railroad ties have been shifted. They were doing work on the train this morning when we were down there.

But we also saw were lots of trucks headed south, full of everything from food, water, clothing, clearly on their way to more hard hit areas in the southern part of the country.

We’re also hearing reports that the government here is shuttling in doctors by helicopter to get them to those sites that are, as of yet, unreachable.

How is the relief effort progressing?
What we’ve seen on the ground has been in a very local fashion -- a Sri Lankan effort thus far.

But then if you speak to the Red Cross and other aid organizations, clearly they are starting to push forward on getting aid in here -- a variety of aid, as well as the personnel that are needed. I know that a Finnish team, as well as a French team, came in today. Search and aid teams are arriving to help in rescuing as well as trying to rebuild so many of these damaged water front communities.

What is the biggest problem facing the relief efforts?
The International Red Cross is worried that there could be a problem with malaria, as well as cholera, because of all the stagnant water, and the salt water that has contaminated the drinking water. So much of the drinking water is contaminated in some way, shape, or form and the worry is that’s going to mean trouble in terms of long term health.

One of the things they are clearly trying to do is to get the bodies out, because the bodies are rotting where they lie. And there are so many of them that they present a health risk as well.

Down in Galle, one of the worst affected areas in the southern tip of Sri Lanka, apparently police were using megaphones to call on surviving residents to bring out their dead and pile them by the street so they could be buried in mass graves.

What part of the population was most adversely affected?
I heard that a large number of victims were women & children, because of a lack of swimming abilities. The men who live on the coast are often fishermen, so the women and children who might have been inside their homes early Sunday morning were literally swept away as the water swept through their homes.

What is the status of foreign tourists and travelers in Sri Lanka?  
Here in Colombo, the hotels are packed with tourists -- many of them Scandinavian, Germans, British. Many were given the opportunity to stay and try to enjoy the remainder of their vacations at the coastal resorts. But they are all trying to leave now. Primarily just because the situation now is fairly untenable. I don’t think they are worried about a repeat of the tsunamis. But, in speaking with them, it’s difficult because it’s taking days to get power back and food will likely be an issue, that sort of thing.

It’s surprising how many are here -- a lot of them are planning on sticking around and go up to the hill country and try to put this behind them. Many have been impressed with the Sri Lankans themselves, the workers at the hotels supplying them with clothes and food.

With the death toll so huge, are there any specific stories you have seen or heard that can help give a human face to the tragedy?
Speaking with people who survived, primarily them talking about how they made it through and are astounded that they did survive given what happened.

Survivors describing watching on this beautiful, sunny Sunday morning looking out over the sea and all of a sudden seeing the ocean recede and then come back with such a fury. And tearing through lobbies of hotels, taking everything with it, many people are clearly still traumatized by this. 

The image that’s in their minds when you hear them speak, it’s clearly very powerful.