Jan 2005

Tamilnadu Coast devastated by Tsunami

On December 26 2004, a hitherto unknown word  entered the vocabulary of every single language in the world. The tsunami or “harbour wave” swept onto the beaches of Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka devastating the lives of their coastal population,   sweeping away people and property. Annihilating entire villages. And all this in mere minutes.

In Tamilnadu, Nagapattinam district  was the worst hit. More than 6000 people have been declared dead till now with many thousands still missing. In the south, Kanyakumari district also suffered  major losses. The deadly waves struck the fisherfolk most lethally. All  untimely deaths are tragic, but here the cruel irony was that  more than 40% of the victims are children. It is only when those figures turn to faces does the stark reality hit you. At police stations in the affected areas,  people who come to look for their lost loved ones have the dreaded task of turning page after page of photographs of corpses. The remorseless task is a two edged sword. You dread finding that fatal photograph. Yet if you don’t find it, there lies before you  only  a vast chasm of doubt and unbearable uncertainty. Your child, father, mother, wife or husband is forever a missing person.

Though we live quite far away from the coastal areas, ACCORD and AMS because of our friendship with SIFFS  phoned to find out  if  friends were safe and what help was needed.   SIFFS (South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies) a partner organisation has  worked with  the fisherpeople for decades. We contacted Vivekanandan,  SIFFS  CEO and asked what we could do. They were all still in shock. We decided  that instead of rushing there blindly, we could help best  by mobilising resources for the relief and rehabilitation work.

We started with an appeal letter  to all our friends and family. The response was  overwhelming. The Green Hotel, Mysore   immediately  offered 2 lakhs. Hilary Blume  who’d left Pondicherry even while the tsunami hit, volunteered 5000pounds  more from the Charities Advisory Trust.

From different parts of the world, phone calls and emails pledging money poured in. The entire Green Hotel staff gave a day’s wages, so did ACCORD. Hilary spread the word among guests and the fund grew by leaps and  bounds.

Stan’s sister Alpheen spoke  about the tsunami in her Boston  Church and was invited by a local TV station to make an appeal. They interviewed Stan over the phone in his room in Nagapattinam at 3 am. Money poured in from all over Boston, some of them fisherfolk, who totally empathised with the coastal people. Poor people sent their last 5 dollar bill in envelopes saying I wish I had more to give. School children wrote letters to tsunami children  touching notes “we think about you and pray for you to find comfort, we think you are really brave to deal with such sorrow.” The total contribution from Alpheen’s  Boston network was around 30,000 US dollars and a few cheques were still coming in. More moving than the spontaneous goodwill and generosity was the empathy across the oceans. Women wrote saying “my husband was a fisherman and I really want these people to know all of us care so much.” Through Manoharan’s network, IRMANs  and other friends joined in and through Deva a group of medicos and friends.

Manoharan set off to Trivandrum to help the overstretched SIFFs team who were all on the coast helping with relief work. He also contributed to developing an interactive website as a forum to exchange information about the  tragedy and to help mobilise funds for the relief work.   Stan and Mari moved to Nagapattinam to help the  NGO Coordination Cell in the District Collectorate at Nagapattinam. This cell is coordinating the relief efforts in the 73 affected villages. It  channelised the resources mobilised by various NGOs, and worked  closely with the Government of Tamilnadu to create   rehabilitation and relief policies and identify  the needs of the  tsunami affected villages. This was achieved  through a network of dedicated volunteers and coordinators of SIFFS and SNEHA (another NGO working in the fishing villages).

Eight women from our ACCORD/AMS team visited Nagapattinam. Bindu, Shantha, Lakshmi and Ambika, the health animators of AMS went to some villages, as most outside  volunteers  lacked Tamil. Just talking to women, providing sympathy and the ability to listen and empathise helped. Monica’s help in setting up the accounting system was invaluable. Molly, Lalitha and Durga worked in the front desk of the coordination cell, helping in the admin work and organising logistics. These women worked quietly and efficiently.

Stan was at the centre of  action, in the Coordination cell, closely interacting with the various players. He  brought in the community perspective to the relief efforts and rehabilitation plans. Mari has written a series of articles highlighting the important issues involved. Some of these  were published  in The Hindu,  and The Guardian (UK). Anu and Krishna, the architects who lived with us for over twelve years, and  trained our construction team, had an important role. They designed a temporary shelter that was  appropriate to local needs and climatic conditions.  They were instrumental in SIFFS constructing individual thatched houses as temporary shelters in Tharangambadi village. This  was widely welcomed by the community – as opposed to  the Government constructed  temporary shelters using Light Roof Sheets. Dr.Roopa was with the coordination cell briefly trying to identify the health needs of the affected people and coordinating the offers of Mental health professionals to provide counselling.

We continue to mobilise funds for the next phase. Rehabilitation. It is going to be a few years before the entire community is properly rehabilitated with  the fishing infrastructure back  in place. Recent updates  from SIFFS can be viewed in the website The list of donations received through ACCORD are given here.


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