Thursday, Dec. 30: A tragedy repeats— almost!
When I got out of the hotel, I found loads of trucks and buses coming from far away places with volunteers. Since yesterday was a lot easier, I considered returning to Bangalore.
I went to the usual meeting place. Trucks were offering more refined relief material like mats, new clothes, biscuits and bread. The guys I volunteered with were also relieved of the support pouring in. Some people in the relief camps were going back to check their houses, and were considering moving back into their undestroyed homes.
We decided to go for the unglamorous task of body recovering, which most of the outside volunteers would not be looking into. Un-recovered and rotting bodies were a major threat for the spread of diseases.
We packed up farming tools and headed off to a badly-hit village and nearby forest. But the chief minister and the prime minister were coming and we were prohibited from crossing the road because we were carrying spades and crossbars.
With no other option left (the road and relief centers being overtaken by security men arranging the VIP visits), I watched television for the first time. I saw the videos of the waves that hit on 26th. It was scary and beyond my imagination. It was then that I started hearing loud sounds outside.
People were running around. I went to the road to see what was happening. Then I heard a message being broadcasted in the empty police jeep asking the cops to evacuate the coast to a distance of two kilometers. Another wave was expected to hit in the next hour.
TV reports soon confirmed that the government has asked for evacuation of our area. Sun TV additionally reported that the water level has increased in Chennai already!
I considered staying in the second floor of the hotel, but the building was shabby so I packed my bag and started walking to the opposite direction of the beach.
I stood outside a tall home, watching the panicked crowd evacuating the town. Trucks of relief teams were leaving town. Teams of doctors and government officials overseeing the relief work left. Mobs were stopping vehicles to climb in, at the risk of being run down. Volunteers were attacked at many places for not stopping. The injured were being carried out. I feared accidents on the road, which thankfully did not happen.
The town where everything was coming back to life went back to tragedy in a matter of minutes. I stood there watching waves of people pass by. The town emptied in less than half hour.
The climate had changed and there was a pale gloom in the skies. People were saying that the situation resembled the Sunday morning before the waves struck.
The family which lives in the building I ended up hunkering down in were calling relatives in the coastal belt and in Chennai for fresh updates. One of the gentlemen struck up a conversation with me and offered me money to leave the town, saying that their family had decided to die together, but that I should leave.
After staying in their home for two hours, I decided to go back to my hotel room. I rested at the hotel and messaged my pals to call me when they are ready to act. At about 3 p.m. I got a message from them to meet up at the usual place.
The refugees were hungry and there were no more relief workers or food. Food was being cooked in the municipal building when the warning came, and the cooked rice was locked inside. All the government officials had fled. (The municipal building was within a kilometer from the coast). So we went, broke open the locks and brought food to the relief camps.
It was an incredible experience: People were doing everything could just to get food. We were being mobbed, pushed and beaten at times. They did not care if we were the ones who brought the food to them- all they cared was that they had a hungry belly and that they were afraid of not being fed again.
Some people were hoarding food, while others were without. The ones who could acted hungriest got more, whereas the poor souls who did not join the mob stayed hungry.
The people in refugee camps were not utterly poor. They were of decent background and proud of who they were. They lived in small houses or huts, but most of them had colored TVs. They wore good clothes and sent children to convent schools nearby. Almost all of them lit crackers worth thousands of rupees a few weeks back for Diwali.
The tsunami shook them all apart. All of them have lost dear ones in this disaster. In some families only children have survived, while in others, the mothers or fathers did but the rest of the family was swept away. Some were still holding on to babies they saved from the waves, not knowing whose the child it was.
All of them are now living under a common roof- a marriage hall or at a school. People who lost all their life savings were now trying to see the night through by saving water and clothes. To look at them and to tell them that they will get food only if they sit on the floor, or only if they form a queue is inhuman- but that is what I did.
By late evening, the municipal authorities came back and they apologized for the delay. We managed to get them to cook dinner. In the same way, it was distributed to the needy.
By nightfall, the relief teams started slowly coming back to the town and water scarcity was also addressed.
I saw the TV news where two ministers were blaming each other for the evacuation order that morning. At the same time, I saw that Sri Lankan government got the same news and prepared the communication infrastructure ready for alert, but waited for reconfirmation before any action.
The whole exercise proved that evacuation was possible, especially if backed up by fear. If a similar evacuation happened in Nagapattinam beforethe wave hit, the death toll would have been miniscule. It was the smallest bit of positive news in an otherwise sad day.
Friday, Dec. 31: Witnessing the damage
Relief workers and agencies were back. Extra cleaning people came in to clean the relief camps and food packets thrown all over. My friends had sourced ID cards for people in relief camps to ensure that each person gets one set of relief goods.
A lot of people had contacted us asking what to bring in. Resettling materials were being requisitioned like rice, utensils, stoves, and kerosene. These were for people whose houses are not destroyed but whose supplies had been washed away.
While the ID cards were being prepared in Tamil (and I am illiterate in that language), someone offered to drive me around to see the damage caused by tsunami. For the first time in those four days, I was engaging in conversations about the incident.
I reached the beach and saw a big palatial house, standing about 700 meters from the sea. Three children and seven guests in that house perished in the waves. Only the father and mother survived.
I saw a train track that was twisted around like a straw. I saw the roof of a car fully submerged in the sands, and huge electric posts uprooted like candles on a birthday cake. I went to the harbor where a huge trawler weighing more than a few hundred tons was thrown to land. Huge fishing boats docked in the waters are now lying hundreds of meters away in the road and in private compounds.
These were mostly scenes many of you saw in the television, but I didn’t see it on TV. I saw them in person. The magnitude of destruction was so overwhelming. It was then that I realized how precariously close to the beach my hotel was. The places where I spent most of my time were less than a kilometer from the sea.
On that day, there were also curious onlookers coming from many parts of Tamil, and even western tourists venturing in to take rare photos of the tragedy.
The town municipality was working well and so were many panchayats (village governing councils) in the relief effort coordination.
The crowds were prepared each time a media crew approached. The politicians were eager to capture their “acts of benevolence” on video camera and staging scenes to be captured by the media.
Thursday, January 6: Back at home
I just got a call from Raja, the leader of a group with whom I became friends with. He wanted to make sure that I reached home safe. Each individual in that relief group was a living example of courage, optimism, and above all, humanity.
As I return to my world, I salute them, and all those who were hit hard by a wave not too long ago. They smile and work, ignoring their own lives in order to help others.
Sudheer Kaavil Valappil works as a project controller with Hewlett-Packard in Bangalore and tries to spend most of his free time with his 3-year-old daughter.