The Auroville Tsunami Rehabilitation Effort
The first wave of the Tsunami hit the Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu coast at 8 AM on 26th December 2005. Seven thousand people died on the spot.
By 9:30 AM, a team from Auroville, the international township, which is situated near Pondicherry, swung into action. A first emergency meeting was called in the house of two Aurovilians and it was immediately decided to set-up a camp for the persons affected by the tidal waves. By 12 am, eight tents and seven shamianas (awnings), donated by the children of Auroville (who use them for their annual summer camps) were erected on a field near one of the Auroville communities. Two portable 5000 liter tanks, two generators, a field kitchen with four cooking ranges, eight ladies and four cooks were straight away put into service.
Three of Auroville's load carriers, two tractors and two buses to pick up refugees were also commissioned. The camp was manned by more than sixty Tamil youths from the villages within Auroville, as well as many Aurovillians from all parts of the world. By 2 PM, 750 people were fed and 350 food packets distributed. All throughout the afternoon, refugees kept streaming in and another 1200 people were fed in the evening. Blankets were arranged as the night was cold and windy. On the second day, everybody was moved to the Kuilapalayam Trust School, which is run by Auroville, as rain was threatening. There, the refugees were spread out in eight buildings as well as two tents and food was prepared this time for 1400 people, along with another 500 food packets for distribution. Clothes and blankets were also handed out.
The extent of the disaster was then becoming clear. A quick survey was done amongst the villages and the Auroville communities that dot the beach. In Ganagachettikullam, a village of fishermen at the extreme limit of Pondicherry state, the Auroville team was met by utter desolation: the mud houses which were the first ones on the beach front had been totally destroyed, or sometimes washed away. Broken furniture was lying on the side of the road, TV's beyond repair were nevertheless put in the sun to dry, pieces of thatched roof were blocking the road, electrical lines had fallen down, the steps leading to an old stone temple had also collapsed.
Three days after the catastrophe, women were still wailing, some of them foaming at the mouth, out of sheer desolation. On the beach, the team met Ranjani, a pretty girl of 18. That fateful morning of the 26th, her mother and father had gone to the market to sell the fish caught in the early morning and she was left alone with her little sister of 3 years, Anusuya. She was cooking the morning's meal, when suddenly her sister ran to her and clung to her shirt. Ranjani looked up and saw a huge wave advancing towards the house. "I climbed on a stool and as water reached my shoulders, I clung on a rafter from the roof with one hand, while holding my little screaming sister with the other, she recalled sobbing. After a few minutes my hands went numb and suddenly I saw that my sister had disappeared". Ranjani cried and cried for help, but nobody came. Anusuya was found dead a few hours later, one kilometer upstream in the village which has been totally flooded. 26 other people, mostly children and elderly persons, lost their lives. 75 houses were totally destroyed and 265 families affected one way or the other by the Tsunami which hit Ganagashetikkam.
Next to Ganagachettikullam, one finds Eternity, an Auroville beach community. There lives a wonderful family: Yuval the father is an Israeli, his wife Hannah is from Holland with five kids, all raised in Auroville, each of them speaking several languages. Yuval and his family moved in 20 years ago on this piece of barren land on the beach where nothing grew. With hard work and dedication, they turned it in a green forest, a place of beauty and peace. They also painstakingly built houses in the community, mostly using local material: mud walls, Palmyra leaves, thatch roofs, with one solitary high hard concrete house. On that fateful morning of the 26th, Hannah had one of her daughters with her, Jitta. Jitta has two children: a daughter of two years and a son who is barely eight months old. As usual in Auroville, where everybody sleeps early, everyone woke-up at 6 Am for an early morning tea in the community kitchen. At 6.30 AM, Yuval felt the earth shake and jokingly asked his wife 'if she was dancing on the bed". At 8.15 Am, Jetta decided to put back her son to sleep on the ground floor of a house which was 200 meters away.
Everything looked so peaceful and no different than a thousand other mornings in Eternity beach community. But suddenly Hannah heard a noise that sounded like the rushing of water. She went outside "I saw this huge wave rushing toward me and it immediately it flashed in my mind: 'Tidal Wave'". She grabbed her granddaughter, climbed on the first floor and shouted at her daughter to go and get her son in the nearby hut. Jitta ran as the water was already swirling around her, managed to get her baby just as he was being swept away, shouted at two guest who were sleeping in another hut - and would have otherwise died - and seeing that there was no way to go back where her mother was, ran towards a higher ground on the opposite side of Eternity. After ten minutes, Yuval and Hannah saw no sign of Jitta and her son and thought they had died. "We screamed and screamed and scanned every part of the community, while water was still rising", Hannah recalls, still sobbing. When the second wave receded, they were able to find their daughter and grandchild -a-l-i-v-e-.
Today Yuval and Hannah have lost everything and are painstakingly trying to salvage some of their personal belongings, thanks to an amazing wave of solidarity amongst Aurovillians and a lot of help from the nearby village. "I put so much work in this land and God took everything back, but he spared our lives and that is a miracle", says Hannah. But like the inhabitants of Ganagachettikullam, their lives have been shattered and Hannah still breaks down from time to time when she recalls the time when she thought her daughter and grandson were both dead, taken away by the terrible Tsunami waves. By the fourth day, it became clear to Aurovilians that they had to shift from immediate relief measures to long term solutions for the affected villages. Hemant and Jos were appointed as main coordinators, with teams for Office and administration, Financial management, Communication, Sourcing and Purchase, Village Relief Coordination, Auroville Relief coordination:. Government Liaison. An office has been opened equipped with computers, telephones and internet as well as ample storage space for goods for the next phase of the rehabilitation.
The two teams from the Village Coordination group went for the first assessment of the damage to nine coastal villages around Auroville in Villupuram district. It was found that a total of approximately five hundred houses have been destroyed and 62 deaths registered. It also became clear that the first basic relief : rice, clothing and 2000Rs cash, had already been given by the Government. What people now needed is to gather their life together. Most of the villagers wanted household utensils, metal trunks, clothing, blankets and notebooks for school children. The longer term concerns were housing and fishing nets and boats for livelihood. Suryangandhi reported how grateful people felt towards Auroville for their timely help in this moment of crisis. The next steps are to build a data-base for needs of all the affected families and set-up a system of distribution. All this would need allot
of men, material and money.
Transparency has been ensured by creating an accounting team and channeling funds through two new created accounts in the existing Financial infrastructure of Auroville which offers tax rebate and foreign donations facility. "What we need, one of the members of the team said, is more funds than goods in kind, specially from the West, as it has been shown in the past that grain can rot in storage, long before it is distributed and that most villagers using firewood to cook, western food stuff and utensils are often not compatible. However, blankets, tents and trunks are welcome". Another member of Auroville's Rehabilitation team emphasized: "that this is a catastrophe of unparalleled dimensions, specially after the warning of the 30th December noon, which sent again thousands of people from the coastal area of Tamil Nadu towards higher and safer grounds. We invite the world community to extend their generous support to rebuild the shattered lives torn by natures fury". And he adds: "if we receive sufficient funds, we will not only look after the rebuilding of the 12 coastal villages we have taken charge off, but we will include all those reaching up to Marakkanam (40 kms North of Pondicherry) "!
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