Tsunami Relief Field Report, 2005

A field report during the Tsunami 2005 relief efforts from Nagapatinam, Velankanni, Cuddalore and Pondicherry, India, from one of our directors, Anu Sundaresan.

Anu Sundaresan, Director, Nandalala Mission is currently in India to help with the Tsunami 2005 Relief efforts.

Tuesday Feb 8th, 2005, and am writing this from my BB in Pondicherry, India.

Today, fron 9am to 4pm, we conducted Medical Camp and Matru Seva at Puddhukuppam, a village 25km from Pondicherry..9 doctors, majority from Madras Medical College, gave consultations to 350 villagers and nearly 650-700 people ate a meal of rice, sambar, rasam, poriyal, koote and buttermilk. Medicines comprised of calcium, iron tablets, cough syrup, antacid, were given to each person accompanied by a doctor prescription –men, women and children participated in the camp.

All cooking was arranged by a group of Nandalala Pondicherry volunteers, led by Mr. Rajagopalan who has a shoe factory here employing 3OO girls. NSS distributed 25 sarees and 25 Lungis to the cooks and their assistants for their hard work during this long, fairly hot day.

In addition, we gave new thali plates to each lady after she ate her meal, and distributed chocolates to a group of 100 children (LKG-4th standard) in the village. Pudukuppam lost 45 boats, three large nets that they used for large catches during certain times of the fishing season, many smaller nets, and 5 people — this village was chosen since it has received very little aid/relief since the tsunami..

The Pondicherry govt has given 10K rupees to each household as well as rice and other food provisions, however many of the villagers we spoke to on 7th afternoon told us that they cannot return to their normal lives until their boats are rebuilt..none have ventured back to sea, and several gave us gripping accounts of how they returned back after their daily fishing routine morning of 26th Dec, and saw the whole ocean just rise and move towards them…they said the children live in fear…

The govt is planning to build 10K homes at cost of 1-1.25 lakhs each–I and several members of Nandalala Seva Samithi (NSS) met the Governor of Pondicherry on 4th and Relief Commissioner today on the 8th to express NSS interest in partnering with them in this rebuilding effort. More followup discussions to take place over next few weeks, after consultation with Sri. Akka.

Tomorrow, we are off to Cuddalore to do a similar Medical Camp/Matru Seva and then on Thursday, the 10th, we leave for Nagapattnam –we are supposedly the first NGO to do Matru Seva at the Vellankani shrine. We will do the Seva on the 11th and then return back to Chennai..”

“On Wednesday, February 9th early morning, we drove to a village called Reddiarpettai, 25 km from city of Cuddalore..the village population is roughly 750. The first thing that struck me as we proceeded into the village were the number of banners of different NGOs that hung near the trees and in front of the local temple..it is clear many organizations had come there since the tsunami to provide relief. This was very different from the previous day at Pudukuppam.

We conducted Medical Camp and Matru Seva here for 320 villagers and distributed sarees to the women folk and chappals to the men. Several villagers commented that although other NGOs had come there, none had cooked and personally served to each person a hot meal similar to what we did that day (most just distributed food packets). We served close to 600 people.

Local village elders took us on a brief tour — 14 homes, 26 boats, and many nets were destroyed. As we walked towards the beach, we saw the piles of rubble, and shacks torn to shreds…it was an eerie sight on such a beautiful day with the sunlight glistening on the ocean waves.

We saw several temporary shelters constructed by a Parisian based NGO, and we learned Ramakrishna Matt had donated new fishing boats for their use. But they still were fearful of returning to the sea — a fourty-something woman summed up her feelings in an emotionally impactful account, “The ocean was like a mother for us…we used to sleep next to it, eat next to it without a second thought..now we curse it, we fear it,” and as she finished, she held up an article in a local Tamil newspaper from that morning warning that another tsunami is likely to come soon..

Several fishermen plan to return to the sea on Feb 13th, after conducting a pooja at the main temple, which has been non operational since the tsunami.

Around 3pm, after the end of Matru Seva, we took a drive to the other side of the village and noticed miles of beach sand now lying where cashew trees and other crops had been growing..the force of the tsunami was so great that it literally churned and hurled half a mile inland sand, stones and other debris from the ocean floor/edge of the beach. Trees lay dying, the only paved road into and out of the village lay covered in beach sand in certain sections…

Around 3:30pm, we left Reddiarpettai for a college hostel right at edge of the Cuddalore city beach. The whole contour of the beach has supposedly changed as a result of the tsunami. We distributed jeans, tee shirts, chappals, plates and tumblers to 80 very poor college students staying at this government hostel. Since the building is directly in the path of the ocean with no trees, homes or any other obstructions near it, it was hit very hard –the flooring was completely destroyed as were several dorm rooms. No NGO had come since the tsunami to help them –one student remarked, “We are the forgotten.”

The Cuddalore govt has now begun reconstruction, and we plan to partner with a local doctor/community leader, Dr. Selvaraj to provide sleeping mats and notebooks for these students moving forward.”

“On Thursday, Feb 10th early morning, we left for Nagapattnam District located 350 km south of Chennai and the most devastated region as a result of the tsunami…nearly 7000 people died and several hundred boats and nets were completely destroyed.

First, we went to Vailankanni, a town of 12000 on the coast of Bay of Bengal and the site of one of the holiest Marian sanctuaries in the world, Vailankanni Mata or Lourdes of the Orient. Millions of pilgrims flock to pray at this shrine every year and it is open to all religions including Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Pattu saris, gold jewelry and silver ornaments are showered as offerings to the Mother Mary every day. We visited local Church officials Thursday afternoon to enlist their support of our Matru Seva to be held the following day on Friday, February 11th.

The town lost close to a thousand — Catholic Relief Services in conjunction with the local parish community have built about 600 temporary shelters and were to meet on 11th to discuss which families were to move into those shelters. NSS was the first and only NGO to conduct Matru Seva at the Vailankanni shrine Community Hall. While other NGOs were feeding thousands at Nagapattnam, none had to date brought their services to the holy shrine itself –we were pleased to have been given the opportunity to feed the locals before they moved into their new temporary housing.

We took a humbling, numbing stroll along the Vailankani beach 1Oth afternoon, and one of the many Nandalala volunteers remarked, “I feel like I’m walking on a graveyard.” Rubble lay where once there were beach stalls. I saw a chappal here, a tattered shirt there. While once there were small shells and stones on the seashore, now there were large fragments of brick walls that aroused a perverse curiosity…We were moved to tears and had a loss for words. How could Mother Nature be so cruel? A mother approached us and said she lost two sons and only had a surviving daughter. She lamented, “How I wish my son was still alive as he was strong and able..”

On Friday the 11th, we served food to 1100 people, one of the largest crowds ever for a Matru Seva. First, nearly 375 children, many of them semi-orphaned or orphaned, rushed in through the Community Hall doors giggling, screaming, elbowing each other to take a seat for their meal….No words can describe the anticipation and delight in their faces.

The meal comprised of rice,sambar, vethai koyumbu, onion raita, buttermilk, cabbage curry, potato curry, pickle, vermecelli payasam and vadai. Even after rice and sambar was served, the children waited for our signal before they took a single bite. They ate patiently and slowly..they were aged 6-16. Sometimes, two sat on a chair eating from a single banana leaf as they said that’s the way they’re used to eating. It was as if their two bodies were joined as one, with one hand eating sambar rice while the other hand from the second boy poked at the vadai and pickle.

They probably hadn’t seen such variety, and most, because they were typically just served a mushy glob of sambar or rasam rice, didn’t even know how to begin tackling this feast laid out in front of them. Most just created a mound of rice, sambar, curry and payasam and downed it all in a single gulp. But no matter –they smiled and posed for the camera, and were delighted to see their faces frozen in digital time..during this time, the adults had to be kept at bay outside as there were not enough chairs to accomodate everyone in the Community Hall. The crowd was getting cantankerous and frustrated. But within the next 2-3 hours, all were served.

The hall has been serving three meals daily for the last 40 days, each sitting accomodating approx 600 people. But this was the largest Matru Seva at a single sitting. Many expressed their gratitude for having given them such a delicious meal with so much variety–one remarked, “just like kalyana sapadu(wedding meal)”. Earlier that morning, we visited a local community of 500 people living in temporary shelters at Kadambadi 5 km from Vailankani. The whole community had been displaced from their coastal village, Ariyanattu, asa result of the tsunami. Rows and rows of one room tenement shelters, 10 homes on either side, lined the streets of Kadambadi. They were built by World Vision International just days after the tsunami.

During our conversations with govt officials, village leaders and the villagers themselves, we always emphasized that Nandalala was there in the spirit of community service, nothing more. The day was hot and tiring and our bodies ached from fatigue, but it was a good fatigue, one that comes from knowing that all NSS volunteers (50 in total between the three locations) from India, US, and Netherlands had joined hands and hearts to give love, attention, respect and hope for those who were so devastated by this tragedy. It was a heart-wrenching, eye opening and ultimately ennobling experience for all.

We thank Sri Amma for giving us this opportunity to serve our fellow brothers and sisters.”

May the New Year bring peace and happiness to you and your families.

Jai Nandalala!!