It was a car ride I will never forget. Four of us were packed into a red compact SUV, racing on a bumpy dirt road to Palliyawatta, a small fishing village on the teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka. The goal was to deliver pots and pans to families struck hard by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Only four days earlier a gigantic earthquake—the second strongest in recorded history—had hurled a massive wave hundreds of miles across the ocean—killing, in one fell swoop, some 30,000 people in Sri Lanka. The total death toll surpassed 226,000 in nine countries.
As we made our way to the troubled shore, a rumor was spreading about a possible aftershock. We passed rifle-toting soldiers, keeping watch. Villagers were fleeing inland, desperately afraid that the terror from the sea was coming again. When we reached the beach, we found a gang of men staring in a kind of trance at the ocean. Over the past few days, eyewitnesses had told me the same biblical tale: a wall of water came all at once—some said it towered 25 feet, about the height of a wooden telephone pole—and like a vacuum, it swallowed everything on the coastline: boats, refrigerators, pianos, and people. Then the wave disappeared. Over the ensuing hours, the sea settled and slowly regurgitated what it had taken. Kitchen appliances, musical instruments, and loved ones came floating back onto the beach in an awful soup of misery.
Five years later, life in the affected countries has resumed, and the world has learned immensely valuable lessons about responding to catastrophe. But as with any human endeavor, some opportunities have also been lost. "The physical effects have now largely disappeared," says Nalaka Gunawardene, director of TVE, a prominent nonprofit organization based in Colombo. Rubble has been cleared, roads have been repaired, and destroyed houses and schools have been rebuilt. But, of course, "the psychological wounds will take much longer to heal," Gunawardene adds.
The timing of the disaster (Dec. 26, which led some to dub it the Christmas tsunami) brought about unprecedented global concern. Americans were incredibly generous. According to an Indiana University assessment, private organizations and individuals in the U.S. ultimately gave nearly $2 billion. And, in large part, the money was put to good use. One comprehensive 2007 study from the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, which interviewed 3,000 Sri Lankans affected by the tsunami, reported that nearly 80 percent received help they needed, and just a fraction reported any kind of discrimination. Reports of graft and corruption have surfaced over the years, but the massive recovery effort proved to be largely free of wrongdoing. In many ways, the relief effort in Sri Lanka offers a model of how to respond to nature's calamities. Chief among them is the realization that local organizations, which can mobilize quickly and know the people and terrain, are the most valuable tools.
Those established, local groups can more easily reach men like Francis Vilakulasooriya, a fisherman with purple-brown skin and long, gray, curly hair, whom I met near the beach. We told him about the rumors we'd heard of an aftershock—he shrugged them off. Without a hint of grandiosity, he explained how he'd saved a group of children from the real wave only a few days earlier. He wore nothing but a green batik tied around his potbelly, and as he showed us around his house—which was doused in black mud—and explained that he'd lost two boats; eerily he kept turning his eyes out to the sea. I asked him what he would do now. "I'll keep fishing," he said. "That's what I do."
The real lost opportunity in Sri Lanka was undeniably the war-torn politics of the country. Many experts explained that the reconstruction period offered an opportunity for the government and the separatist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to find common ground. They'd been fighting a nasty war for decades, and the disaster, including the immense goodwill coming from overseas, couldn't change that. "We very much regret that Sri Lanka failed to use the catastrophe as an opportunity to bring about inter-ethnic reconciliation," reported Sarvodaya, a prominent development agency on the island. In fact, the war intensified, and the government in Colombo, with a clinched fist, now claims to have quashed the rebels once and for all.
Unfortunately, the hardest lessons to learn from Sri Lanka's experience are incredibly difficult to implement. The most explicit reality is that the world's most vulnerable—namely the poor who lack sturdy housing and good communication—are almost always the hardest hit. Work by the Centre for Research on the epidemiology of disasters reports that tragedy tends to kill more in the underdeveloped south than in the industrialized north. "The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami marked the starting point of a shift away from relief and recovery to risk reduction, which will give us disasters that are more like their 'northern' counterparts," says Rohan Samarajiva, CEO of Lirneasia, a Sri Lankan nonprofit that has watched the tsunami recovery closely. However, accepting the fact that natural disasters are destined to continue, and understanding that climate change threatens to intensify some of Mother Nature's most tragic handiwork, it will still take significant effort to prepare the globe's most at-risk communities. And in a time of global financial crisis, the funds aren't readily available.
We eventually delivered the pots and pans to a local church, and word finally came that the aftershock had measured a measly 5.1 on the Richter scale. By that point, nobody was worrying about anything less than a 6. No more torrential waves were coming that day. I spent the next few weeks traveling around that gorgeous country, listening to people talk about their lives and how they'd changed, and retelling those stories in Western media outlets. It was a terrible sight to see—the miles and miles of shattered houses, piles of wood collapsed along the coast. But in reflecting, it is worth remembering that good-hearted giving can and does make a difference.