Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Tsunami Aid Isn't Simple

By Harry Moskos
Of the Journal
    SPARE CHANGE: An Albuquerque architect recently returned from Sri Lanka as part of a delegation invited to survey the country's devastated coastal area.
    Sri Lanka was one of 11 countries hit Dec. 26 by a tsunami that killed more than 176,000 people and left more than 50,000 missing and hundreds of thousands homeless. The wave killed more than 31,000 people in Sri Lanka alone. The country has a population of more than 14 million.
    "The tsunami struck most of the eastern and southern coastal areas of Sri Lanka," said Terrance Brown, senior architect with the Albuquerque firm of ASCG Inc. and co-chair of the American Institute of Architects' national disaster assistance committee.
    Brown was spokesman for the eight-person team of architects, planners and civil engineers that spent five days in Sri Lanka.
    "The team witnessed a great deal of destruction along much of the coastal line," Brown said. "Destroyed houses and broken boats were everywhere. Entire communities of victims are still living in tents and will have to wait longer for houses until the government and non-government organizations find funding."
    Human actions— such as removing natural defenses— played a role in the damage created by the tsunami.
    "There were massive sand dunes that obstructed the view from one resort hotel, the Yala Safari Beach," Brown said. "They bulldozed them down. You then had a wonderful beach with an open view, but when the 30-foot wave came, there was nothing to stop it."
    Describing the extent of the damage as "amazing," Brown said all that remained of the hotel was "the concrete foundation, tile flooring and swimming pool."
    Brown said the next step is to bring people together to start planning restoration.
    But there are several problems hindering rebuilding.
    First, Brown said, many donations had strings attached.
    "A lot of money donated is restricted, but there were not donations made to build infrastructure," Brown said. "They don't have money for sewerage systems or electricity."
    Another problem is the wrong type of donations.
    "There are piles and piles of blankets stocked up at the airport," he added.
    "The minister of housing said the country would have been better served if the relief agencies would have communicated with them before shipping unusable relief supplies. Blankets are not needed in Sri Lanka's hot, humid climate."
    The country, which has its own bottled water industry, also received thousands of gallons of donated water.
    "They are still trying to figure out what to do with all that water," he said.
    One controversial issue in reconstruction, Brown said, is the Sri Lanka government's proposal to set aside no-build safety zones around coastal areas.
    "There are many problems with this proposal," he said. "In some areas, the geography does not require it, and in other areas, people are already rebuilding their homes."
    Brown's team visited many temporary housing sites for displaced people, including fishermen who lost not only their homes but also their boats and nets.
    Brown met a baker who lost his stove in the tsunami and was having difficulty making a living without one.
    "The magnitude of this disaster not only left people homeless, but destroyed many of the country's schools," he said. "There were 13 schools destroyed in just one area."
    Another issue hampering the recovery is political in-fighting, including the question of whether to share tsunami aid with rebels. The Tamil Tiger rebels, according to The Associated Press, are demanding a say in how aid gets distributed to rebel-controlled areas.
    President Chandrika Kumaratunga sees a joint council to distribute aid as an opportunity to forge a peace with the guerrillas, but recent student demonstrations in the nation's capital of Colombo protested her position.
    Brown said the committee's team will hold a conference in August with members of the University of Hawaii's Pacific Disaster Center. He said the team will report its findings and proposals to the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects, which invited the study team to visit the country.

Harry Moskos can be reached at 823-3837 or hmoskos@ abqjournal.com.