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Staff Story: Remembering the Asian Tsunami


This is a personal story by Direct Relief  Employee Matt MacCalla.

On December 26, 2006, in a modest event commemorating the second anniversary of the Asian Tsunami, a small assembly of people, including officials from India’s national and local governments, gathered in the Andaman Island capital of Port Blair. Together, they intended to illustrate that there is more than grief to be recognized, and more than tragedy to be remembered. Although sadness made its presence felt, the event acknowledged achievement and hope for the future by officially handing over to the government 34 new health care facilities, funded by Direct Relief, to replace those that were literally washed away in the Tsunami.

Looking back two years, it is not difficult for most to remember reports of the Asian Tsunami, the wrath it brought, and the quarter of a million lives it took. The wave wreaked havoc on five costal countries, each experiencing a great deal of damage. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands—a chain of small, sparsely populated islands located 1,000 kilometers to the East of mainland India—were no exception, and bore witness to a great deal of death, injury and destruction.

Comprised of hundreds of islands, the Andaman and Nicobar chain is India’s most remote state, famous mostly for its underwater scenery, lush tropical forests, wildlife, and, for its remoteness. With a population of less than half a million, it is also India’s least populated state, and many on the 36 inhabited islands are aboriginals from one of twelve original tribes. Still today, many of the islands have little to no contact with the outside world, and parts of their culture, indeed even the size of their population, are officially unknown. Few, if any, other living human populations have experienced such long-lasting isolation.

Interestingly, it is alleged that of those island communities that still survive in their traditional way, not a single person perished in the Tsunami. The reason commonly believed is that due to being more in-tune with nature, they recognized the impending danger in the agitated behavior of the wildlife, and were therefore able to escape to higher ground.

After the Tsunami, many of the islands, especially those in the South closer to the epicenter, were devastated. More than 7,000 lives were lost and 40,000 lost their homes, left to live in one of the 150 aid-camps set up around the islands. Of the many problems faced on the islands after the tsunami, one of the most significant was the slow pace of reconstruction due to a general lack of transportation and medical infrastructure, lack of cargo space and the great length of time needed to reach the islands by boat to deliver supplies.

Prior to the tsunami, the healthcare infrastructure on the islands was based on primary healthcare centers, sub-centers and a few hospitals. After the tsunami, a large number of these (30 primary healthcare sub-centers and 4 primary healthcare centers) were totally destroyed. This created an almost complete breakdown in the healthcare infrastructure and crushed the islanders’ ability to return to their home islands.

As part of its large-scale Tsunami Relief grant program, Direct Relief began funding the reconstruction of these 34 centers shortly after the tsunami hit. The project was carried out through the joint efforts of Direct Relief and Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana (BJS), an Indian charitable organization that engages in and supports education, job training, and disaster relief. By means of the $1.5 million dollars donated by Direct Relief, and with the permission of the Indian government to rebuild the health clinics, BJS and Direct Relief embarked on reconstructing the healthcare infrastructure throughout the island chain.

The first step of this project was to spend time with and talk to the local communities whose health care centers were lost. Only after asking them what they wanted, what should be built, where it should be built and what services they really needed, was the construction phase begun. And the results and feedback received thus far have been outstanding.

The new health centers that have now been built are of an even higher quality than those that they replaced. The desire to build back better encouraged those working on this project to not only expand the centers, but also to redesign them so as to resist damage by earthquake, flood, and cyclone level winds. In addition, for each center, the project includes an 18-month training program and, for the first time, living quarters for a full-time, live-in, health-care provider or midwife. Lastly, Direct Relief sent four 40-foot containers to the islands in order to equip the centers with the basic supplies they will need.

The entire project was massive, and will have an equally massive impact on people’s health for years to come. For me to be present at this auspicious gathering was a real honor. Not only was I asked to speak to the delegation of national, state and local officials, but the significance of the occasion was ever present and obvious: no other NGO had stepped forward to offer such a large scale reconstruction project on the islands, and the Health Department made it clear that it did not have sufficient funds itself to rebuild the centers and sub-centers. Therefore, if it were not for the many generous donations given to Direct Relief, and Direct Relief’s subsequent funding of this project, it is unlikely that the health care infrastructure would have been rebuilt to this day.

Participating in the handing over ceremony with me were the National President and National Secretary of BJS, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, the Director of Health Services of the Andaman and Nicobar administration, and the Secretary of Health.

I will not soon forget this occasion, just as I will not soon forget that tragedy is not the only thing to be remembered each December 26.

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