Local Officials to the Rescue
Dealing with Disaster
One year after last December’s tsunami, many stories are told in village after devastated village in India. Those that stand out tell of an administration that had to think on its feet, of the generosity of the human spirit, of a huge logistical effort, and of teamwork and commitment despite confronting an incomprehensible challenge.
These stories hold many lessons. When the walls of water crashed onto the shore, it was a normal Sunday morning. Women traded in fish on the jetties, children played cricket on the sands, grandmothers sunned themselves, and most officials were away on vacation. Being the day after Christmas, the sea-facing Vellankanni Basilica was thronged by pilgrims from all over the country.
“The first reports I heard were of people fleeing the coast in the hundreds of thousands and rushing inland,” says, Dr. J Radhakrishnan, the government official now in charge of Nagapattinam district who was further inland when the disaster struck. “I couldn’t imagine what had happened.” What was worse, the mobile phones wouldn’t work, and a heavy rain set in.
More than 6,000 people died in the tsunami along a short 10 kilometer stretch of coast in India’s Nagapattinam district alone; most were women and children who couldn’t escape the onrushing walls of water. Another 200,000 people were affected in the district.
As Radhakrishnan set out to investigate the cause of the terror, he found a stunned people, roads washed away, bridges downed, and trawlers flung across highways, cutting off some of the worst-hit areas. Only one ward of the hospital was left able to deal with the constant stream of injured that poured in. “The sheer scale of the tragedy only sank in the next morning,” he recounts.
Swinging Into Action
Though they had never before encountered a disaster of these dimensions, the government officials swung immediately into action. They made it a point to be visible to stem any possible panic. And with the help of the hundreds of NGOs that poured in, an extensive relief effort was launched.
One of the worst tragedies took place outside the old Church at Vellankanni, revered by people of all faiths. Whole families were washed away as holiday crowds milled around impromptu markets. Seeing the helpless orphans at Vellankanni, S. Ganesan, a local official, determined to go on and help all those he possibly could despite having lost his own wife to the disaster. “I threw myself into relief work,” he says. “It helped me to bear my loss.”
Bodies were strewn all over, both human and animal. The hot and humid climate made it imperative to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic. Another immediate concern was to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to the hundreds of thousands of traumatized survivors, some too numb to comprehend what had happened.
But, feeding the large numbers spread over a large area was not easy. “Everyone who could had fled,” recalls Prabhakaran, the district relief official from Cuddalore district. “Who was to cook, and where were we to get the stoves and gas for this?”
Using ingenuity and quick thinking, with wireless as the only means of communication, they arranged for food to be cooked in large quantities and brought in from the neighboring districts. “For weeks later, I kept 5,000 food packets ready at hand as one no one knew when the need would arise,” he adds.
As relief camps sprang up in marriage halls, schools, and cyclone shelters, volunteers helped pile bodies into mass graves after families and community had given consent. Photographic and video records had to be kept to help identify the dead, as shaken people hunted desperately for missing loved ones.
Some 1,000 government officials and staff worked round the clock in Nagapattinam district alone. “Our day started at 6.00 a.m. and went on till late every night. No one stopped, no matter how tired they were,” says Radhakrishnan’s deputy.
Ambulances were rushed in and teams of doctors and nurses from other areas helped immunize survivors against a host of diseases.
As the water supply was in danger of being contaminated with animal carcasses, the municipal supply was cut off, bottled water was brought in with relief materials, and tankers supplied camps with water.
The hot climate made sanitation extremely important. Bleaching powder was sprinkled widely to disinfect large areas.
Control rooms monitored the distribution of relief materials, using a combination of phones, wireless, and ham radio facilities for tracking what was needed and where.
In Nagapattinam, the worst-hit district, the administration coalesced into 11 teams comprising of medical and police officers, utility personnel, and fire and rescue officials, each led by a senior government official. The teams were able to decide most things on the spot as each had been equipped with adequate funds. Senior officers camped out in the district to oversee operations and to ensure the seamless flow of relief.
In the camps, traumatized survivors were provided counseling and local volunteers trained to carry this further on a wider scale. Missing persons’ cells were established and a website set up to track the dead, injured, and missing.
“By December 31st, almost all the bodies had been recovered and buried. Water and electricity was restored, there was no looting or rape, and there was no outbreak of disease,” says Radhakrishnan with a well-deserved sense of achievement, especially given the difficult tropical conditions and the scale of the disaster.
As vast quantities of relief material poured in by road, rail, and air from all over, managing the supplies and ensuring that each item reached where it was needed most was in itself a huge challenge. Any delay would have meant more suffering. Inventories were therefore maintained on line. Says C. Kamaraj of the experience, “I was told to go and take charge of relief operations at the main warehouse in Chennai. There was no brief on what was to be done. We simply took it from there.”
In the districts, tasks were assigned to NGOs according to their expertise. For 60 days the administrators met every evening with the NGOs to take stock of the situation. “This was not a competition,” says Radhakrishnan. “Teamwork was essential.”
“Building confidence among a shaken people through a strong and visible government is also important to help them stay calm,” he adds. “It helps them to know that they are being looked after. And each person’s request, however small, is important.”
Reflecting on what could have been done better, he feels, “Perhaps the teams could have been formed a day or two earlier.” The teams have also learnt some important lessons. Relief atlases, with the names of all providers of relief services would be of immeasurable help in major emergencies. And mapping habitations with the details of who lives where and does what would assist the administration in assessing community risk.
But “disaster is not a statistic,” he sums up. ”Ultimately, it is the humaneness of the approach that matters.” And from the numerous tales that are told, the response did indeed rise to the occasion.
By Vinita Ranade, World Bank Office in India. Picture by Sona Thakur, World Bank Office in India.