Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1  



IC community members are personally touched by one of the world's worst natural disasters.
Tsunami Hits Home

by Jennifer B. Brown


Aceh, Indonesia. Galle, Sri Lanka. Phuket, Thailand. These communities are currently defined by destruction and disaster -- towns and villages inhabited by the homeless, bereft, and displaced. After the tsunami of December 26, 2004, the natural beauty of these areas will forever be unknown to most of us. The names, however, are not. Nor are the faces.

Ithaca College is and has been home to people from all over the world. So it should come as no surprise to learn that the effects of the tragedy reached all the way to South Hill. Faculty, staff, alumni, and students represent many of the countries struck by the deadly waves touched off after the 9.0 earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia.

"We used to holiday in Galle all the time," says freshman Nethra Samarawickrema, "so the way was familiar, or should have been." Instead of the landscape they knew so well, scenes such as these greeted her and her family as they drove to the coastal town in the days following the tsunami. There they pitched in with the relief efforts and witnessed heartbreak and devastation.

Early on the morning of the 26th, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded rocked the floor of the Indian Ocean. Within an hour waves racing at up to 500 mph, reaching up to 80 feet high, buried the coastline of Sumatra. Not two hours later the coasts of Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand were deluged as well.

And not long after that, sitting in her family's home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 20 minutes from the coast, Nethra Samarawickrema '08 first heard the news. Too far inland to have heard or seen anything coming, she and her family first saw the images on TV, much as those in the United States did. Samarawickrema quickly volunteered to help stranded tourists and gather rations. "We were driving to Galle," she says, "where we used to holiday all the time. So the way was familiar, or should have been. But as we were driving, the placards on the roadside were the only way I knew where we were." Everything else she might have recognized had been swept away by the fierce tidal wave.

Sarinda Unamboowe '88, CEO of the Sri Lanka-based swimwear company Linea Aqua, also lives in Colombo and shares similar images of ruin and devastation. Several employees of his company were caught in the surge of water; one was trapped with her family in their car as waves swept across the road, lifting and pushing the vehicle until it wedged against a wall. They survived. "Others," Unamboowe reflects, "did not make it to tell their stories."

Adam Ellick '99 is a freelance journalist who has lived in Indonesia for more than a year. A week after the tsunami hit he headed to Aceh. He was immediately struck by the severity of the situation on many levels. Aceh, a very religious and strictly government-controlled area, is an Islamic province mostly cut off from Jakarta. " I would be shocked if anything but a sliver of the donations from the West actually finds its way into the hands of the victims," says Ellick, citing the corruption and greed that riddle the government and military. During the tsunami Aceh's mayor, reports Ellick, drowned in the prison cell where he was being held on corruption charges. The government has asked all foreigners to depart the country at the end of March. As Ellick says, the "second tragedy" is that the people will have little or no help in rebuilding, either from their own government or from outside.

Plea for Help

In our last issue we wrote about Burmese freedom fighter Han Lin, who works in IC's Office of Physical Plant and is the parent of three IC students (ICQ 2004/4, Burmese Freedom Fighter). Lin is no less committed to his goal of removing the military dictatorship from his land and freeing the people's leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house imprisonment, but now he and his fellow Burmese in exile have an even more immediate goal -- to raise funds to help the thousands of undocumented Burmese who were stranded by the tsunami in Thailand. To donate or learn more about the situation in Burma, please visit the website of the U.S. Campaign for Burma,

For now, housing is the biggest necessity, according to Samarawickrema, Unamboowe, and Ellick. "Many of the homes destroyed were illegal shanties," says Samarawickrema, "and now there is no place to rebuild." The government has prohibited building near the shoreline; villagers have already begun the long, arduous process of reconstruction farther inland.

One Indonesian village in particular, Wanduruppuwa, is receiving help from both Linea Aqua and Ithaca College's International Club, which is hosting a fund-raising "tsunami month" this spring. Linea Aqua has helped residents to rebuild 10 houses, but Unamboowe, pointing out that the work ahead will take years, urges people to get involved now and stay involved for the long haul. Samarawickrema hopes the Ithaca College community will join in that community-rebuilding effort for the people of one village on the other side of the globe.

Photos by Nethra Samarawickrema '08

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