A relief worker's diary

A tsunami survivor carries bamboo to rebuild her hut at a fishing hamlet in Nagapattinam India
A tsunami survivor carries bamboo to rebuild her hut at a fishing hamlet in Nagapattinam, 350 km (219 miles) south of the Indian city of Madras January 7, 2005. Kamal Kishore / Reuters

A day after the tsunami hit Nagapattinam, India, Banglore resident Sudheer Kaavil Valappil made a decision to volunteer. While others were evacuating, he boarded a bus and went to Nagapattinam. Below, is his diary of what he saw:

Day 1
Sunday, Dec. 26
The tsunami struck at about 8.45 a.m.-9.30a.m. in Nagapattinam.

Day 2
Monday, Dec. 27

I made my decision to go to Nagapattinam and help.

Day 3
Tuesday, Dec. 28
Before leaving Banglore, I did not see a television or a newspaper.  But on my way to volunteer, I saw the pictures of the disaster for the first time in a newspaper. The local dailies had no censorship and were full of pictures of bodies spread around in the streets. It gave me jitters…

As I neared town, I hoped the road would be filled with people rushing to help, but the road was empty. There was only our bus and its two passengers.  I had to transfer to another bus, which was filled with refugees returning to see what remained.

On the bus, some people spoke of strange fish they saw when the waves came, and some talked about who survived and who did not. Mostly, the overcrowded bus was just silent.

Nagapattinam looked like a ghost town with hardly anyone in the streets and the buildings boarded up.

There were only two hotels to stay in: The better looking hotel was booked out with police. I headed to the shabby looking one where I was lucky to get a room. I hit the bed for less than an hour, unsure how to begin helping out.  I was exhausted after a less-than-ideal journey overnight.

After a short rest, I went to the municipal office. There were more cops around and the place seemed much busier. People were lying in the sides of the street and their belongings lay scattered around.

On my way, I saw a group of doctors and paramedics from Apollo Hospitals, Chennai at a relief camp.  They guided me to a local man who was organizing volunteers.  This gentleman gave me a hearty welcome and showed me the group traveling with the doctors. He was actually a big businessman and a top district-level politician. But on that day, he was just a good Samaritan.

The Apollo Hospitals team was the first outside team to come. They had two senior surgeons, pediatric, orthopedic, and cardiac specialists, a few junior doctors, and a lot of paramedics.  Residents also composed part of the relief team.  They were forced to move family members relatives’ homes further inland.  But these locals stayed back to help those who lost everything in the waves.

I was given a face-mask and gloves and we all set to work.

As soon as we started moving towards the next relief camp, traffic was blocked. Indian National Congress President Sonia Gandhi was visiting the refugees, so relief work came to a standstill.  Nearly 40 vehicles and 200 plus supporters accompanied her, forming a human wall around her as she went into the nearby hospital.

Ladies were bought in from a nearby refugee camp to cry in front of Sonia. They were even asked to hold off until she arrived. When she did come out to meet the crowds, the prepared ladies started wailing that they lost everything. It was obviously a photo-op for the media.  When Gandhi and her entourage left, not one of her supporters stayed back. They had the far more important task of tailing their leader.

We finally set up the tables and chairs so people could get medical care from the doctors.  For those who survived, there were lots of cuts, bruises, and injuries. Some had drank sea water and had related illnesses.

Victims said they were carried away in the water until they found something to hold on to. After that, they fought against receding and incoming water, while dodging all kinds of debris.  Those who gave up went with the sea and never came back alive.

Medicine quickly ran out, as doctors did not anticipate what the needs were. Calls for extra supplies were made. Doctors had no choice but to take a break until extra stocks arrived from hospitals a few hours away.

We went to many more relief camps that day. I started managing crowds at the relief camp and soon became a paramedic, holding patients while all sorts of wounds in their bodies were being tended I do not want to say more about those wounds but that those sights would remain fresh in my mind for ages to come.

I saw an extreme range of human emotions: Children not crying while major injuries were being attended to; a mother fainting after the sight of a child crying out in pain from a skull injury; a son threatening the doctor not to save his father because he wanted the relief money offered to the dead.

A mother even tried to hurt her child by raising him with both his legs. I caught the kid before his head crashed into the concrete. His mistake? He spilled the mineral water that she got from us. The next day I saw this mother walking around carrying this child without putting him down. Remorse, maybe…

There were two policemen stealing a sack full of new clothes intended for the refugees. At another time, refugees who tried to get one piece of cloth out of the sack were being beaten up by the cops.

We closed the day late, at about 9 p.m.

Day 4
Wednesday, Dec. 29
Nagapattinam started receiving major media attention and most of the relief was being routed there. Other medical teams had come to the town, so we decided to move to the outskirts and nearby towns where we might be more useful.

We planned on going to a village that was entirely wiped out. The only access was a bridge blocked by huge boats thrown over by the tsunami. But we were told that the village was completely evacuated and there was no point in returning to the areas. While leaving town, we saw the beautiful (the most revered church in south India) where the waves swept off the people who came to attend the Sunday mass the day after Christmas.

We traveled quite far into inland areas. The stench of rotting bodies loomed in many places on the way. Relief camps at most places were well organized by that day, with one resident doctor in each relief camp. However, they were running out of stock and needed the special assistance that we provided.

In some places, drip was given by laying the patients under a tree and hanging the medicine from the tree branches.

On returning back to the town, I saw the sorry sight of used clothes lying all over the town in the roads. Clothing collected by agencies across southern India was being dumped into Nagai, but not to the needy in the inlands.

The Nagapattinam District was heavily hit by the tsunami claiming more the 4,500 official deaths. But all relief aid was being concentrated onto the Nagapattinam town which accounted for only a very small portion of the impacted area in the district.

Food packets were thrown in the floor near the relief camps and most of the food distributed was stale. In turn, this attracted flies, and flies invite disease.

Day Four was less stressful compared to the previous one. Most of the time was spent traveling. We closed the day at about 11 p.m. and I hit the bed like a log.