Tsunami days: orchestrating a rescue effort
21 December 2012
Consultant Asoka Thenabadu was enjoying a holiday in his birth country Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck in 2004. He escaped the worst of the devastation and stayed for a year to help run a charity providing aid to those who were less fortunate. He describes his experience
I will never forget Boxing Day, 2004. It was a Sunday. I was on holiday in Sri Lanka, in the western coastal resort of Mount Lavinia, staying at my mum’s house. The usual Sunday morning pastime there is for groups of friends to go to the fabulous beach for a walk and a dip in the sea.
As usual, I collected my school friend Tasil, who was an excellent companion, as he was aware of all the latest gossip, politics and world affairs.
We both noticed that the sea seemed different that day. It was rough and the waves became bigger and bigger. Then the water receded about 200 yards, leaving fish jumping up and down. Some beach boys took the opportunity to collect some fish, in spite of warnings from sensible people.
Tasil and I decided that something must have happened at the seabed for the water to recede. Just then we saw a massive wave rolling and roaring towards us from beyond the reef. Fortunately, the reef broke it up and a smaller wave, about 12 feet in height, proceeded towards land.
Death and destruction
We rushed home to see the news on TV. Three massive waves had hit the east coast of Sri Lanka, and we saw the damage, death and destruction that had been inflicted by the tsunami.
Thanks to the reef, Mount Lavinia had escaped significant damage, although the fishing boats all got swept inland, and I later discovered a boat I had hired in the past for snorkelling 300 yards inland.
On TV there were appeals for volunteers, food, clothing and dry rations. I promptly joined up with a group of Canadian expatriates and set up a tsunami aid organisation called IMPAKTaid (since renamed the Impakt Aid Trust).
The makeshift office (donated by a well-wisher) was near the five-star hotels, and foreign holidaymakers donated cash, clothing and shoes, as well as the sweets they had been planning to take home as gifts.
All walks of life
The volunteers were all sorts of people — builders, honeymooners and round-the-world sailors among them.
The priority was finding food, clothes and shelter. Those affected had found their way to the local temples, churches, mosques and schools. They were all welcomed without any religious or ethnic bias.
We sent out vans (again provided for us by well-wishers) with loudspeakers asking for meal packets and clothes. All Sri Lankans joined in this mission and cleaned out the shelves of the supermarkets and shops and prepared meal packets, which we collected and distributed to the refugees along the coastal belt near the capital, Colombo.
Neighbours and congregations continued to provide meal packets for the refugees. Sadly, the government organisations and hospitals were unprepared for an eventuality such as a tsunami, and did not get their act together for some time. Government offices were flooded and slow to restore functionality, and officials tended to return home to care for their families rather than organising the relief effort.
Government found wanting
As usual with a major tragedy, there was some vandalism and theft. One man — thankfully apprehended — was filmed cutting a ring off the finger of a dead woman.
The British expatriates of Galle on the southern coast did a sterling job, and provided meals and clothing there.
Sanitation and clean water were a big problem. When I was at medical school in Sri Lanka in the 1960s, we were taught how to make pit latrines and provide clean water with tube wells, and I devoted my time to providing these necessities in the refugee camps and holding medical clinics.
Diarrhoea and other infectious diseases usually follow natural disasters, and our charity may have contributed in a small way to avoiding them.
Trauma, sadness and grief were common to all the clinic users. Post-traumatic stress disorder was a regular presentation. One little boy who had lost his parents and siblings came into the clinic as it opened and had to be turned out when we closed late at night. But at least children like that could expect to be cared for by neighbours and extended families. There is a culture in Sri Lanka — and not only during disasters — of people sharing their meagre meals.
The next stage was providing temporary housing, and we set about doing this with the foreign aid we received from our network of friends in IMPAKTaid.
As time went by, compassion fatigue set in and we ran out of funds. The Pakistan earthquake in October 2005 and other natural disasters elsewhere caught the imagination of the world.
However, we had served our purpose.
Eight years on, most of the refugees have been rehoused with generous donations from overseas. However, there are still a few living in refugee camps.
I devoted one year of my life to relieving the misery of the tsunami victims. I left the running of my locum agency in the UK to my wife, and my family was very supportive while
I was away and not earning any money.
‘Do what you need and want to do and don’t mind us,’ they said. I am very happy that I have used my skills as a doctor, a Sri Lankan and an entrepreneur to help my fellow men. May this type or tragedy never happen again, anywhere in the world.
Asoka Thenabadu qualified in Sri Lanka and has been practising paediatrics in the UK since 1975. He is now semi-retired and spends the British winter in Sri Lanka and the summer in the UK. The Impakt Aid Trust continues to provide charitable services in Sri Lanka. These include a mobile medical clinic, an employment initiative for widows, and activities for children.