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February 27, 2005

Tsunami Up Close

I just spent a few lazy days on the beautiful island of Ko Jum, south of Krabi. It's a wonderful place that a Scottish guy I met in Krabi turned me on to--a friend of his owns a resort there that was hit by the tsunami, and they were eager for visitors. Amazingly, no one on this island died, but I heard some amazing survivors' tales and saw the pictures they took before, during, and after the big waves. Most of the resorts along the coast (there are only about 10) lost at least their first row of bungalows, and where I stayed they also lost all of the beautiful plants scattered about the property, two boats, books from their guest library, CDs, and a huge, brand-new bar of solid wood and marble that was pushed THROUGH the restaurant! I was going to help plant some new plants while I was there, but they were still waiting for them to come in, so I helped simply by staying there and eating there and giving them income for more repairs.

Obviously other areas were hit much harder, and while I was in Krabi, I heard an inspiring tale from an American guy who came to Thailand with a pocketful of money from friends, hoping to find a way to directly help those affected by the tsunami. He found a great need in the village of Nam Kem, the town hardest hit in Thailand (and recently visited by Clinton and Bush), where thousands of people died, and hundreds of fishermen have been left without boats, without a way to support themselves and their families. Now, thanks to Jhon and a few others, work is underway to rebuild their boats. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to visit Nam Kem, and am not sure I will, but I thought the least I could do is pass along a bit of the report Jhon sent to the donors back home. It's a long but riveting read, and they could use a lot of help to get this town back on track:

After arriving in Ranong, Thailand we started researching Tsunami damage locally by talking with as many of the relief workers in the area we could find, quizzing them about what they knew. It turns out to be a surprisingly effective way to find situations that are going without assistance or that have a particularly low level of priority for receiving it whether due to government programs that have so far given priority to re-establishing the commercial fisheries and tourism industries or because many of the professional relief organizations are still in the "assessment" phase of their work. The word being circulated around here by relief workers is that many of the large organizations are squabbling over the premium and high-profile projects that will best dress up their portfolios. But there are many, many projects for somebody who wants to do "guerrilla" style relief work, even in Thailand which was relatively lucky compared to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Because the big agencies and government programs seem only able to operate in ways suited to large institutions, there are many people and situations that fall through the cracks. There are individuals who arrived here with money they collected from friends back home to donate but they are generally finding there are very few local programs to spill their money into... and just giving away money, although a very kind and arguably noble move to make, does nothing to re-establish lives. In fact, all of the money I brought from all of us can not solve a single person's economic problems here.

By a chance encounter in Ranong we met Graeme Killen, 68, an Australian retiree who has lived for the past 9 years in what turns out to be the hardest hit community of Thailand - Ban Nam Kem. We met in the hotel lobby where we were staying and the next day we traveled to Nam Kem together. Nam Kem is a large fishing village on the Andaman coast of Thailand about midway between Ranong and Phuket. The population on Dec. 25, 2005 was approx. 5,000 Thai residents plus an estimated 5,000 Burmese, mostly subsistence workers in the fisheries and construction industries. The government does not release an actual death toll in this area, perhaps because they are trying hard to lure tourists back into the main vacation areas to the south in Phuket and Khao Lak and talking too much about death and destruction just sends the wrong message to vacationers planning to find the ideal getaway. But locals and relief workers in the area seem to agree that easily a full 50% of all people present when the Tsunami struck are known to be dead and another significant percentage are still missing. The Buddhist temple down the road serves as the morgue where bodies are stored in refrigerated shipping containers, waiting for identification. The stench of corpses crosses the road to leave a band of fouled air that can't be missed each time the monastery is passed.

Nam Kem existed on fishing with virtually no tourism in the immediate area. With clear priorities so far to re-establish the tourism and commercial fisheries industries, there is a sharp imbalance in where the Thai government seems to be investing it's resources. The independent fishing families here seem to have the lowest priority for receiving assistance even though they are the heart and soul of the village.

We arrived Feb 4 - nearly six weeks after the Tsunami struck - and within five minutes of our initial tour of the village it became obvious that in addition to nearly total destruction almost nothing had been done that could be called "reconstruction". Although the Thai army is doing a fantastic job providing food, water, temporary shelter and general relief to everybody, there are almost no signs of the eight billion dollars in global relief money that flooded the relief pipeline following the disaster. There are still flooded sink holes in the middle of where the town once was. There are piles of debris everywhere and rubble from the homes, much of it collected in the murky salt ponds. Everywhere you walk you can kick up such items as ruined family photo albums, hand tools, window curtains, kitchen utensils, keys, wallets... everything. To the Thais the village is full of ghosts and was dead and wasted when we arrived here.

In the mean time the survivors have been living in temporary housing barracks where life's comforts are similar to those of a refugee camp except that they have full freedom to come and go as they wish. But the town in completely non-inhabitable and the survivors tend to spend their days out in the housing camps, waiting for the promised assistance to start the clean up and re-building process.

Now the good part: We've had a huge success establishing Tsunami Fishermen's Relief Fund. In just six days the infrastructure to build and repair the longtail boats used by local fishermen had been established and is up and operating.

Day I (Friday 4 Feb ) - Organizers and friends brainstorm ideas and prepare an outline plan for the project. The thinking being that if the local fishermen could see the beginning of some activity, if they could see boats on dry land in for repairs, hear the saws and hammers from the repair project, a few might start to take heart toward getting back on the sea. If a small spark of life could be established in a very conspicuous place in the village, it might attract a few more who in turn might attract a few more. If a critical mass of lively activity and optimism could be achieved, it might influence enough people and perhaps start a wave of interest in returning to life throughout the village. At the very least, it would get a few boats built and get a few of the fishermen who are emotionally ready to be back on the water out and making a living.
- Graeme Killen's temporary dwelling, a rented garage/shop, (his home was washed away) becomes the bunk-house for the four project founders and is further utilized by being put into service as the project office and supply storage.

Day 2 (Sat -5 Feb) - Pon, a local Thai woman who has lived in Nam Kem for 28 years, arranges for the use of a prime piece of land where boats will be built and repaired. She also contacts one of the village leaders to inform about the project.
- Pon's brother-in-law makes banner signs for the project to be strung in front of both the office and the sea side work area.

Day 3 (Sunday 6 Feb) - Arrangements are made with the Thai Army to clear and flatten the work area with their heavy equipment.
- A potential donor requests that some boats be brought onto the site as evidence that something is really happening - to show that it's not just a nice idea but a functional project. The word is put out and several fishermen agree to tow their boats tomorrow when the high tide will allow them to get in to shore.

Day 4 (Monday 7 Feb) - We decide we'd better wake up and get over to the Army early in the morning to make sure they don't get diverted by another project of higher priority. We arrive at their headquarters at 8:30am but find nobody around. Turns out they were already at our site looking for us! The project area is cleared of broken concrete, trees and other heavy debris and then graded level. Two boat launch areas are also graded.
- The fishermen miscalculate the high tide and no boats show up at the work area. It has been 6 weeks since they have last been on the water and they have lost touch with one of the most basic elements of their lives.

Day 5 (Tuesday - 8 Feb) - The fishermen catch the tides and eight boats arrive in tow for repairs. The Thai Marine Department brings in a large crane and all eight boats are pulled out of the mud onto the dry land of the repair site.
- Swedish press entourage covers the story and the lifting of the boats.
- Radio Thailand interviews us.
- Relief Volunteer workers stop by - they have heard about the project, stop by and commit to provide a large shelter structure for building boats.
- People are hanging out at the repair site all day now. Fishermen are starting to make the small repairs to their boats they can make without tools.

Day 6 - A team of 20 Korean relief workers clean rubble, stone and loose debris from the one acre work area by hand. The work area becomes one of the first pieces of land to become habitable and restored.
- Four more boats are towed in for repairs. These are all of the boats known to have survived in the Nam Kem area with estimates of destroyed boats being as high as 300.
- Nine monks from Bangkok perform a ceremony at the freshly prepared work site. It is intended to bring a good future for the fishermen and for the project. At the end of the day several people have quiet conversations about what has just happened...a small bit of life has returned to Nam Kem village.

We put only $1,000 dollars on the table as "seed money" for this project in order to test it before making a full commitment to it. As of day six, when it was clear that the concept was solid and appropriate, only $37.00 of that money had been spent. There has been so much support from everywhere that it was almost impossible to spend money. But now expenses are starting to explode as purchases of timber, nails, glue, paint, epoxy resin and tools start to kick in seriously. The cost to build a single 36 foot longtail boat is about $2,700.00 or $3,700.00 with a standard 15 HP motor. If it turns out that 300 boats have really been destroyed, the cost to replace them would be Approx. $1,110,000.00. Even to build 100 boats the cost would be around $371,000.00. Obviously this is serious money and we have not yet secured the needed funds.

We presently have three crews ready to work but we have only enough money to keep one crew active at this time. So far, all new donations are coming from within Thailand by individuals and groups who are visiting Tsunami damaged areas with the intent to contribute money where they see a good project. We are proceeding to build at least thirty boats in the near term but we are doing it with money we don't yet have. Now that the project has come alive everyone wants to get a lot of boats built.

There are several important ways you can help, and not all of them involving money. We are presently searching for a non-profit organization dedicated to Tsunami relief work which could receive and process overseas donations on our behalf. This would make it much easier for donors to make contributions as well as to provide the highly prized tax deductibility for donor contributions. If you know anybody who works with a tax exempt organization who could arrange this for us it would be a HUGE contribution to the project to make that breakthrough. It is very difficult to arrange this from over here, even in the age of e-mail.

Financial donations can be made to support specific areas of the project:
The general fund buys the timber, glue, nails, paint and other supplies needed to build and repair boats.
Contributions can be sent to:
Tsunami Fishermen's Relief Fund
1706 Vilas Ave.
Madison, WI 53711 USA

Non-essential items that you may feel deserve funding.
1. Pon's salary. Pon is co-director of the project and has lived in Nam Kem for 28 years. She lost her house and all of her belongings to the Tsunami and we believe she falls into the category of those who need as much assistance as can be afforded at this time. She is essential to the success of the program and has made all of the arrangements that only a local Thai can arrange and has worked all day, every day, without any talk of compensation until we just put her on a very modest salary - presently about equal to what a common laborer makes. We would all like to give her a more professional salary but the expense would be about $130.00 per month. Instead of using money that donors expect to be used directly for boat building, we are hoping to find a few donors who sees the value in allowing us to step forward to pay her something close to what she is worth.

2. Buddhist rituals for auspicious occasions. The ceremony we sponsored for the fishermen on the day the project was established opened our eyes to the value of including this very important element of Thai culture whenever possible. It makes the people feel calm and optimistic and connected to life - something like what they were accustomed to before the Tsunami shattered their lives. The monks bring attention to the deep reverence for all life that Thai culture supports and to be able to afford to make ceremonies at auspicious times is something that, in better days under normal conditions, Thais willingly incorporate into their normal budgets. When we asked the monks to perform the ceremony for the launch of the project they declined the standard offering of 100 Baht ($2.60) per monk, asking us to give the money to someone who is taking care of the orphans of the village instead. But they depend on performing these and other services to the community and the offering is a mutually advantageous element of Thai culture. Offerings from the community are the only source of subsistence for them and the community enjoys supporting them and having them nearby. In the case of surviving the Tsunami, the monks have played an immeasurable role. The temporary relief housing is built on monastery land, the mass morgues are housed at other monasteries and the monks have fed the people and buried their dead. They are truly like brothers who are better to be included in the routine activities they are appreciated so much for. One example of auspicious occasions suitable for ceremony would be the day when each of the large ponds are drained and declared to contain no more bodies. Nine monks traditionally perform this type of ceremony and the standard offering converted to US dollars is $23.70.

3. Come and stay and work. There is room for 1-2 people who would like to visit and work as supporters of the project. Since there is no accommodation in the village after the Tsunami, you would be welcome to stay in the very simple, almost primitive, quarters of Graeme's. For $15 per day, per person, you will get meals and accommodation just adjacent to the heart of the destruction zone in Nam Kem. This amount would include a donation of about $8.00 per day, per person, to the Fishermen's Fund. There are also many very comfortable resort accommodations available at deeply discounted prices about 19 miles down the road at Khao Lak, a major tourist area. You could easily arrange a working vacation combining comfort and beauty with the ability to make a huge difference in many people's lives.

The administrative costs of this project are limited to only the small expenses of office supplies, gasoline, cell phone and misc. expenses that cannot be avoided in the operation of any program. All positions are held by non-paid volunteers and donations are virtually 100 percent applied to goods and services acquired at local prices.

It's been truly amazing to be here and be involved in the relief process at the moment when the people are slowly starting to think about living a life with a future again. Half of this town of 5,000 people has been killed. We've become buddies with the sole individual looking for bodies here. He drains the huge salty, debris filled slime ponds one by one by pumping and damming then and then he wades through the muck and trash, sniffing and prodding. He just found the corpse of another child on Feb 10. Another friend was finally able to positively ID his wife's corpse using dental records in the mass morgue on the same day. It's an excruciating process to be part of even as a visitor without any of the losses suffered by the people surrounding me.

There are so many shattered lives. Not shattered like we usually measure disastrous, life changing mishaps. The complexity of this situation escapes me each night as I sleep. When I wake up in the morning my memory has reverted to a much more sensible model of what I expect disaster to be like for those caught up in it. Each morning when I wake I have lost the reckoning required to sustain an understanding of what it is like to have lost your husband, oldest daughter, mother, and baby... and your uncle next door, his son and wife who you often work and eat with... and your uncle a few house over who taught your husband the techniques of boat handling and fishing... and half of the the children who played in the streets your home was on... and the homes of those children whether dead, lost or surviving... and the infrastructure to sustain life such as the shops where food or household goods were available as well as the people who would otherwise rebuild them had they survived. Electricity, water, drainage, transportation are all in ruins - all broken and swamped in the mud and sand now baking like soft stone encasing the debris of concrete blocks, trees, tires, broken boats, toys, household goods, splintered building materials, trash and everything else that was contained within the walls of buildings that previously filled the streets. There is sea salt in the wells and the soil. Life will not be normal here for a long, long time.

Posted by Amy on February 27, 2005 01:39 AM
Category: Thailand
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