Tsunami, Again (D. Willis)
My own home is Kobe, Japan, which experienced a devastating earthquake in 1995, with 6,500 people killed and unbelievable damage. My hesitancy in writing is not helped when I find out that about the same number were killed in Nagappatinam city alone. And that is not even mentioning the string of villages leading up to the pilgrimage center of Velankanni 15 kilometers to the south. We will never know how many died along this worst-hit stretch of coast in South India, but we are easily talking about 15,000- 20,000 deaths. The number of homes, towns, and villages destroyed is shocking, but perhaps not surprising when we think that the undersea earthquake that generated the tsunami was 150 kilometers in length. An actual mountain range under the ocean collapsed, as we now know.
The enormous destruction extends in brutal swathes across the landscape up and down the coast. Pictures of recently war-devastated Fallujah or the awesome smoking ruins of Hiroshima or Dresden come immediately to mind. We begin with the port area of Nagappatinam, where dozens of large fishing boats were either piled up or have been brought from various sections of the city where they ended up. There is no activity in the port aside from salvage. Entire neighborhoods around the port are wiped out, a few concrete buildings remaining here and there amidst the rubble of bricks and torn clothing. I am reminded of the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
The first wave seems to have been enormous and was followed by two other large but not as devastating waves. From the descriptions we hear today, water marks, and previous reports it is apparent that the wave was close to 45 feet or 14 meters high, rising up like a monster from the ocean, the sea that seems so calm and beautiful today. One boat was lifted over the top of a three-story building and smashed to pieces in a gas station on the
other side of the road from the port. The jumble of large fishing boats, which must weigh 30-40 tons. each makes the whole sequence almost dream-like, memories of fantasies one had as a child.
Refugee shelters have been set up in open lands, but not where there were houses before, those areas clearly haunted by the death and destruction. A few people wander dazed amongst the ruins of various villages. Some sit staring out at the ocean. PTSD, which we experienced very badly in Kobe is everywhere. I can feel it.
It is one thing to see pictures of the destruction but an entirely different matter to see the physical results in front of your eyes. We of course missed the terrible loss and tragedy of human lives which was all around and in the air for some weeks after the tsunami. It has already been two months since the tsunami hit, but for those living there the fear and struggles continue daily.
Nagappattinam’s black-and-white banded lighthouse stands high above the coconut palms and smashed neighborhoods. It must have witnessed the full brunt of the tsunami. The few other trees that remain have had their leaves and branches knocked off. Coconut palms have been torn up as well, though some clusters are still standing.
The wrecked neighborhoods look like a city dump that has been bull-dozed over repeatedly, but the roughness of the land and the protruding debris betrays any indication that this was man-made. Bricks are strewn everywhere. Crows pick at the ruins. Dogs wander, looking at us suspiciously and barking. In some places where there had been hundreds of huts packed tightly together there are scavengers, clearly Dalits, digging gingerly through the rubble. Roofs have been torn off, metal twisted into ghastly shapes, sand and earth mixed together in a kind of crud that conceals what had been life and livelihood. Collapsed walls, goats, building foundations, trash seemingly everywhere, but it is all the detritus of life swept away.
For two hours Sekar and I walk among the ruins and cannot say anything. We are stunned, in shock, seeing and imagining what has happened.
Towards sunset, we meet a green coconut seller in Velankanni trying to sell coconut water to pilgrims, clusters of large green coconuts hanging from his bicycle. His older brother was working selling coconuts on the beach that morning at 9:30 am when the tsunami swept him away. The look of shock in the coconut-seller is still there.
Boys are trying to play cricket in the flattened spaces in what was once a thriving village while a women sits and stares at the sea. Pilgrims approach the water carefully, walking slowly towards the ocean. For everyone, the fear of what the ocean could do is on our minds.
If the tsunami had hit on December 25, the death toll in this Christian pilgrimage community alone would have soared into the tens of thousands. Ironically, one of the reasons Velankanni was established is that there was a vision of Mary, Jesus’ mother, saving Portuguese sailors from the sea here. The commemorative shrine for this event seems mocked by what has recently happened. But it is Sunday and the prayers and choral singing in Tamil continue over loudspeakers, with people entering the church for prayers and blessings. I wonder how the tsunami will fit into this cosmology and destruction. The tsunami entered the basilica compound, town bus stand and town, and then continued inland, leaving devastation in its wake.
The tsunami actually moved inland as far as eight to ten kilometers in places. Even villages 30-40 kilometers away noticed their water levels rising one to three feet, or up to one meter. The reports we heard from even those distant places was how angry the water was and by implication the Gods. Individual explanations tended to go along those lines, that the Gods or God was angry with the people who had been bad and wanted to punish them. But the poor were hit the most, the rich the least. Is that a justification for the system as it is, I wonder?
Nearly all of the aid has gone to the fisherman communities along the coast. They have been very vocal and effective in mobilizing support, but there are many other, largely voiceless and faceless communities that have been affected as well. Krishnammal has identified those people and those villages, places we visited on previous days. Many of those people are either without any jobs now as they had traditionally serviced the fishermen’s industries or are small land-holders.
Where the tsunami flooded fields with crops of these small land-holders the crops were dead in days as they took up the salt from their roots. The problem was compounded by the prawn farms found in the area around Nagappatinam, the salination and chemicals from these ponds spreading even to areas out-of-reach to the tsunami. Where the tsunami breached these farms. it has destroyed many of them as well. It is unlikely that they will recover, but that has not stopped large prawn farming companies from applying to various relief agencies for aid to rebuild what had been banned by the Indian Supreme Court.
Appa tells us the next day after he arrives about new activities they have taken up against new prawn farms coming up around Mammalapuram, or Mahabalipuram as it is now called, an ancient port and the site of some wondrous art. They are also located near Kalpakkam, one of India’s nuclear plants. At least this site seemed to have withstood the tsunami. But now a new tsunami has come with the capital intensive activities of prawn farms.
What is it about Appa and Amma? He is 92 years old and still active, rising at 4 a.m. for meditation every morning, followed by very supple yoga and then discussions and strategizing with LAFTI workers. He has clearly slowed down and spends a good part of the day later sleeping, but there is still a fire and a spark for the struggle. How he must wish he were even as young as Krishnammal (78!) and could continue the challenges as he would like!
Something about the nonviolent way, showing compassion, sharing suffering, sharing joy, too. (Krishnammal has been quite a matchmaker for marriages, by the way)
As Amma told us, “If one chapter closes, another opens.”
One more reminder: We need letters of support for LAFTI’s nomination for the Right Livelihood Award. See above and below.
The Other David