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Monday, January 03, 2005

Survivor Syndrome Dominates the Tsunami Aftermath

In many areas of the world, New Year celebrations were subdued and reserved for obvious reasons.

The tsunami disaster has wiped away entire villages, the death toll appears to be reaching the 160,000 mark and reconstruction could take at least 10 years. Modern history has seen its fair share of natural disasters, but it is plain that this Asia ocean disaster is a new benchmark in that category.

Now millions of lives need aid. With livelihoods completely destroyed, children orphaned, families decimated, this direct result of the tsunami will probably be the deepest cut the fury of the sea will have carved into the human landscape spanning across 12 countries.

Not only were the people native to the regions affected, but for many Europeans these exotic locations are dream vacations. The dream turned into a nightmare.

Humankind's most strongest instinct is to survive and to criticise. In the wake of the destruction, people are questioning whether humanity is doing enough to come to the rescue of the needy?

The scope of the relief effort - like the disaster - was tremendous.

The American military was mounting its largest operation in southern Asia since the Vietnam War, delivering supplies from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln stationed off Sumatra and sending Marines and water purifying equipment to Sri Lanka.

Four Indonesian navy frigates loaded with supplies arrived off the coast of Meulaboh, the fishing village that was one of Aceh province's worst-hit spots. About half the town of 40,000 was destroyed. An Associated Press reporter who visited could see fewer than 100 residents searching for food among destroyed homes along the coast.

As a signal of U.S. concern, Secretary of State Colin Powell was to begin a tour of hard-hit areas on Monday. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Powell defended the administration's efforts against criticism that the United States was slow to respond with financial aid. Washington pledged $35 million at first, but raised that to $350 million Friday.

"The American response has been appropriate. It has been scaled up as the scale of the disaster became more widely known," Powell said.

Health officials in the disaster zone said no medical crisis has yet emerged, although getting clean water and sanitation to hard-hit areas was urgent to prevent disease outbreaks.

He said the 18,000 refugees there had gotten only one aid delivery.

In Thailand, officials borrowed six elephants from the Wang Chang elephant farm in the 17th-century Thai capital of Ayuddhaya for help in clearing away wrecked buildings and other debris from the ruined resort island of Phuket and Phang Nga province.

The animals - who were also used in recreated battle scenes for the movie "Alexander" - arrived Sunday and began work immediately on the muddy, hilly terrain.

"The six were chosen because they are smart and can act on command," said Romthongsai Meephan, one of the elephant farm's owners.

The Thai government said 4,985 people died in the tsunami, including 2,230 foreigners.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited Phuket island on Sunday, hoping to prop up a tourism industry that is critical to the country's economy and pledging to set up a tsunami early warning system that scientists say could have saved many lives were it in place a week ago.

As the regions were so poorly prepared, with no early warning systems at all, such comments also raise the question of what can be done so that affected countries can be better prepared for other such disasters next time.

Survivor Syndrome
Another one of the challenges presented by such destruction is the recovery of survivors and the emergence of "survivor syndrome", the psychological consequences that comes to rest on those who saw so many die, and yet lived to tell the tale. A new community has been created: the tusnami survivors.

"It's so weird, I'm angry at the bodies," explains Marko Cunningham, a Liverpool-born New Zealander at Khao Lak Beach, Thailand. "I'm angry at them because they just don't stop coming. You know why it's easy to handle these? They don't even look human any more. They look like blow-up dolls."

Ivana Giardina of Melbourne, whose 16-year old son Paul, who had Down syndrome, was drowned when the tsunami swept through their Phuket hotel, explained, "Everybody loved him. He had a heart of gold and was such a caring kid. How are you supposed to get on with your life after something like that...he kills you with love and then goes."

The stories are varied and numerous. The range of drama is immeasurable. In such a catastrophe with so many lives affected, the stories of woe, stories of loss, stories of death and most possibly the stories that stand out the most - those of survival can be found in every report to come out of the tragedy.

Survival of the Luckiest
Scanning through news reports, among such incidents as wildlife officials in Sri Lanka finding no evidence of large-scale animal deaths from the tsunamis - indicating that animals may have sensed the wave coming and fled to higher ground to the odd fact that in most villages while everything was crushed flat only mosques stood standing, it is the stories of survival that captures the most attention. From people left clinging on cliff tops after 25 feet waves lifted them up in the air to ancestral prophecies saving gypsy fishermen, it is tales of life conquering the odds that come out on top.

In Sri Lanka, Nimal Premasiri first closed the window to avoid being splashed by the unusually high waters, but the next waves that struck the Queen of the Sea train were as big as elephants, recalled a survivor of a tsunami onslaught that claimed more than 800 lives in a single blow.

Premasiri's daughter told him not to worry when she saw the rushing wall of water - she could swim.

He never saw her again.

The train was chugging slowly up the sandy, palm-fringed coast and was nearly reaching its destination - the historic port city of Galle - when the waves struck.

"It looks God did not want to take me," Premasiri said, fighting tears as dozens of neighbors and family gathered to mourn at his home in this suburb of the capital, Colombo.

"We first saw the waves that they were higher than usual, and fearing that I will get drenched I closed the window on my side," said Premasiri, recounting the tragedy that took the lives of his daughter, Taranga, 18 and wife, Mallika, 51.

"Then I saw waves as big as elephants coming toward us," he said. "My daughter told me not to worry, she was a good swimmer and will help us...Those were the last words I heard from her."

The waves also took the lives of 800 others, including the engine driver. Premasiri survived with a few scratches to his leg.

Elsewhere, British surfer Martin Markwell had always dreamed of catching that perfect wave - but when it finally came along, it was a nightmare.

Markwell was paddling on his surfboard Sunday off the popular Hikkaduwa beach resort on Sri Lanka's palm-fringed southern coast when he was swept up by a tsunami wave and sent crashing over a white sand beach and into a hotel restaurant.

"It was really terrible because I was surfing, I was really surfing on a wave I wasn't supposed to be on," he told reporters.

"As an experienced surfer, when I saw the wave come I realized something was wrong, but I couldn't escape because my surfboard was tied to my ankle."

His wife Vicki and son Jake looked on in horror from a hotel balcony as he crashed toward the shore. Miraculously, he stayed atop his board until he reached the hotel, jumped off and waded to safety as the ocean rolled back to feed a much larger tsunami wave on its way.

The family regrouped and ran inland into jungle to safety just minutes before a giant tsunami wave 30 feet high crashed into Sri Lanka's coast.

In another story of survival, a 10-year-old British girl saved 100 other tourists from the Asian tsunami having warned them a giant mass of water was on its way after learning about the phenomenon weeks earlier at school.

"I was on the beach and the water started to go funny," Tilly Smith told newspapers at the weekend from Phuket, Thailand.

"There were bubbles and the tide went out all of a sudden. I recognised what was happening and had a feeling there was going to be a tsunami. I told mummy."

While other holidaymakers stood and stared as the disappearing waters left boats and fish stranded on the sands, Tilly recognised the danger signs because she had done a school project on giant waves caused by underwater earthquakes.

Quick action by Tilly's mother and Thai hotel staff meant Maikhao beach was quickly cleared, just minutes before a huge wave crashed ashore. The beach was one of the few on the Thai island of Phuket where no was killed.

Her teacher, Andrew Kearney, paid tribute to his quick-thinking student.

"Tilly is a very bright, level-headed is an incredible coincidence that our class were learning about this type of tsunami just two weeks before Christmas," he said.

Such events will either question faith or strengthen it.

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