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Adele Barker: Disaster’s Aftermath

Today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government.

A Haitian girl rests after receiving treatment at an ad hoc medical clinic in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.I was on my way home from Sri Lanka, sitting in the transit lounge of Heathrow Airport when the earthquake struck Haiti. Several hours later the first film footage began to come in. We sat with our Starbucks and along with everyone else just stared.

Two weeks earlier my son and I had spent December 26th driving up the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. It was the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. We stopped at a couple of beaches and swam along with other Sri Lankans. On the surface it looked like just another day. But it wasn't. How could it be? We have friends over there who will never ever go to the shore again, much less swim in the waters. Others marked the day in their own way. Officially nothing was done by the government. But privately people remembered.

Like most of us, I've spent a lot of time over the past few weeks in front of the television set looking at images of Haiti. We used to live in Sri Lanka. I had written about the tsunami, and so people have asked me if what happened in South Asia in 2004 can teach us anything about how to respond in Haiti. People want answers; I want answers, but the answers aren't easy to come by. We want people not to die in these disasters; we want aid to reach its mark in something approximating a timely manner; and we want to see life returning to normal as soon as possible. Do we have a shot at any of these or am I simply dreaming? I am neither a seismologist nor an aid worker. Like all of us though I am devastated by the disaster, puzzled and irritated by the problems getting aid where it is supposed to go, and wishing things were different. And so I offer here a few thoughts.    

Mrs. C. Vinita of Belliwate village not only lost her home in the tsunami, but also her daughter, who was getting ready to write her A-level exam. She stands in front of property flattened by the tsunami. Sadly, natural disasters are not preventable. We cannot keep earthquakes or tsunamis from happening. What we can do though, and this we do fairly well, is calibrate the likelihood of either taking place. The problem is that scientists have still not come up with a way of predicting the exact moment a natural disaster will hit. And so the initial casualty figures are always staggering. But it is also true that close to 80,000 people could have been saved on December 26, 2004, had the countries of the Indian Ocean had a tsunami warning system in place. It took the wave 2 1/2 hours to reach the coast of Sri Lanka from Thailand, time enough for people to be warned and escape. A man I know who works at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii was on duty that morning when the Sumatra earthquake generated the tsunami that decimated the western shore of Thailand before proceeding across the Bay of Bengal towards Sri Lanka and India. He tried desperately to warn both countries, but neither was part of the Pacific Ocean Tsunami Warning System, and the Indian Ocean had no system in place at all. Nobody knew what was heading towards them. Today, with financial help from other countries, a system consisting of seismic stations, tsunami detection buoys and gauges placed at sea-level has been set up. Does it reach the entire island equally? No, but it's better than what had been in place, which was nothing.

Haiti never had a chance. They had no warning. Or did they? To the woman cleaning her house, to the kids out playing on the streets, life turned upside down in a nanosecond. But geologists were not surprised. They knew that the fault zone on the southern side of the island posed a potential hazard. But it was the moment itself that they couldn't predict. Sri Lanka and India, unlike Indonesia and Thailand, had a few hours to prepare had they received proper warning. Haiti had no time at all.

When disasters of this magnitude strike, the first response is to want to do something. Writing checks seems paltry, and yet it is what we are all urged to do. The human response is to want to get on a plane and go down there and do something, although we often don't know exactly what it is we would do once we got there. It's been incredibly frustrating watching aid pile up on the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport. All kinds of reports have surfaced as to why the aid has not been reaching people in a timely fashion. This has sounded so familiar to me. It feels like a replay of 2004. Surely we can do this better. Sky News a week after the tsunami proudly announced that planes were on the runway at Gatwick Airport waiting to take off, loaded with aid for the stricken country. But what about the first week? The reality is that aid from abroad gets stalled for a million different reasons. Perhaps it is to be expected when the usual channels we depend on to deliver aid are disrupted. Maybe it's the port or the roads as in Haiti, perhaps the roads and the train tracks as in Sri Lanka. Aid to the north of the island got appropriated by the Tamil Tigers and redistributed in their name. In some cases it got turned away altogether. Word went out to the Sri Lankans in 2004 to let the aid agencies handle the food and water distribution because it was safer that way. The problem was that the food and the water were initially tied up in the same bureaucratic red tape as they were in Haiti with transportation at a virtual standstill. Villages all over the island, many of which were located hours and hours away from the affected areas, loaded up lorries with food, water, clothing and medical supplies (to the degree to which they had any) and delivered them to the survivors. Local help was the first to get through. The same was true in Haiti. Survivors ended up being the rescuers. In Sri Lanka the people who could least afford it gave what they could while international aid waited for authorization. In the first days it was Sri Lankans helping Sri Lankans, Haitians helping Haitians while aid organizations already on the ground often themselves become the victims of the disaster they were there to help alleviate.

Book Cover for Not Quite ParadiseIt is hard to think one's way towards a solution to all of this. International relief does the best it can in circumstances such as these. The story of aid not reaching its mark in a timely manner is as old as the disasters are tragic. One point though seems worth considering: should relief organizations that are already on the ground not stockpile resources-- from water to non perishable items, and medical supplies-- in countries located in seismically volatile areas? The International Red Cross ran out of supplies on January 13th, one day after the earthquake; Doctors without Borders soon thereafter. On-the-ground reserves guarantee that there is sustained aid available while international aid mobilizes its efforts.

I have been back to Sri Lanka twice since the tsunami. Places more likely to bring in the big tourist dollars began to rebuild almost immediately. Much aid was poured into these areas. Eight months later smaller villages away from the tourist meccas were still ringed with the scars of the disaster. Competitive charity was one of the hallmarks of relief aid. Agencies competed with each other in donating what they thought was needed. Villages where no one fished received a surfeit of fishing boats! It seems an obvious point to make, but aid often gets misdirected, reflecting more what we think people need than what their actual needs are at a given moment. And yet, with the huge influx of charity, perhaps it is in the nature of things that some should miss their mark.

As I was preparing to leave Sri Lanka this past January, I read an article in one of the local papers about a group of fishermen and their families living in huts on the shore south of Colombo. They had requested housing after the tsunami and were still waiting. The article reported that the fishermen had missed the deadline for applying for post-tsunami housing. The author quoted a government official as saying, "These fishermen have always lived like this. Why should they live differently now?"

As I write this blog, the story of Haiti and the Haitians is gradually sliding off the radar of the U.S. media. Aid and recovery will continue... as will loss. The media leave; gradually we all return to what we were doing before the disaster struck, while others begin the painstaking process of rebuilding their lives... and wait.

If the disasters themselves are not preventable, sometimes the way we handle the aftermath is.

Photo of young Haitian girl from http://www.flickr.com/photos/unitednationsdevelopmentprogramme/ / CC BY 2.0

Photo of woman during the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka from http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarvodaya/ / CC BY 2.0