Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Tsunami Memories (as not seen in the New Yorker)

While watching the news the other day I saw some footage of crews cleaning up along the hurricane-ravaged beach in Mississippi. I've grimaced when I've heard comments like, "This is Louisiana's tsunami" (no it wasn't - this was a slow disaster that unfolded over many days, while the tsunami was a single unexpected catastrophe that hit at 600 miles an hour, literally the speed of a jet plane, and killed 100 times more people), but the image of people piling debris onto a tarp and hoisting the contents of the tarp onto a trash pile on the beach brought back memories.

As it happened, I was in southern India soon after the tsunami, and spent the one free day I had on the beach lending my hand to cleanup. During the trip home (Chennai/Madras to Delhi to Amsterdam to JFK, about 30 hours) I wrote a piece about that day. I envisioned it as New Yorker "Talk of the Town" item, but their editor didn't share my enthusiasm, so the article has never seen the light of day.

With Katrina fresh in mind, I'll post it now. One caveat - the piece was trying to strike the semi-detached narrative tone of the magazine section for which it was submitted. Clearly I didn't nail the landing, or you would be reading this as a link to a published article instead of seeing it on an obscure self-published blog...

A Day At the Beach

Five weeks after the massive wave hit southern India, about forty people milled around the Auroville Tsunami Relief Centre waiting for the morning transport to the disaster zone. A short orientation talk for the uninitiated explained that on this day they would be going to a village that the ad hoc international clean-up crew had not yet visited. The volunteers loaded themselves into three small buses, piling around work gloves, yellow plastic tarps, and crowbars. Twenty bumpy minutes later they came to a stop under some coconut palms, normal-size waves crashing on the beach ahead of them.

The area between the beachfront and the village was strewn with refuse. Much of the mess was vegetative, mixing palm fronds and oceanic flora in a soggy, sandy mass. Tarps were spread on the ground, armloads of organic garbage were dumped on the tarps, and small groups of four would soon coalesce around a full tarp's corners to pick it up and carry it to near the high-tide line. Soon a small hill of trash had formed, and after a while a new pile was started a dozen meters away, and later still another. As each tarp-load was dumped, often with a running start and a big swing to try to get the garbage to the top of the pile, one person would end up carrying the empty tarp back to the work zone. The group would disperse as each member saw another task that needed attention.

A few younger men had grabbed shovels and started digging deep holes in the sand. A middle-aged woman from France filled gunny sacks with bits of Styrofoam floats, plastic sheeting, and any other non-burnables she could scavenge, and lugged her garbage to the holes to be buried. Others found their own specialties - salvageable wood in one pile, bricks from a collapsed house in another. An American college professor on a brief visit to India spent some time wrestling with an endless plastic fishing net that had wrapped itself five times around the base of a coconut palm. An Indian professional set about gathering the fermenting coconuts that made the area smell a little too ripe.

A roar went up from the middle of the clean-up zone, and a dozen men from the village, joined by some of the visitors, began sliding a blue open fishing boat toward the beachfront. Some pulled on ropes, some pushed on any available hand-hold. A few minutes later, a red and white boat was hauled toward the sea. The wave had carried all the boats that had survived (the village lost five fishermen at sea) over or through the coconut palms and deposited them by the houses at the edge of the village proper. A yellow boat had to be dug out from under the thatching of the house that it had smashed into, looking like it might never float again, but it too was slid clear of the palms, to the part of the beach where boats belonged.

People from the village joined in the work, after having avoided stepping foot in the devastation for more than a month. They collected bits of nets into piles and cleared rubble from houses that had partially disintegrated. With a word from an elder, several boys scurried up the coconut palms. A few minutes later, all the visitors had their own fresh coconuts prepared for them, first to drink the sweet juice and then to eat the sticky meat inside.

Several American students, from a cadre in India for a semester abroad, began destroying an intact house that had been condemned. The dismemberment began by ripping straw and coconut fronds off the roof, then prying apart the roof's wooden framework. Great piles of debris were stacked on tarps and hauled to the mounds at the water's edge that would be set ablaze after the work crew drove away. When the roof was gone, the students began smashing bricks off the structure. One young man put a crowbar between an ornate entryway door frame and the wall next to it. "Save the door!" called the professor, and ran to the destruction site. He was handed a crowbar and began banging away the soft bricks above and around the door frame. With a push, the frame started to fall forward. Hands appeared to stop it from crashing into the ground. A beaming homeowner helped the professor carry the door frame to safety, then clutched him tightly to pose before a digital camera that a British woman had pulled out. The professor, who had begun the day fretting about tsunami tourism, was now thoroughly absorbed in the task at hand. He and a few younger men went back to demolishing the house, and cheers arose as each wall yielded to prying and smashing. The visitors were concerned that a wall would collapse onto the house next door, but the residents signalled that that house too was to go. With a push the wall toppled over, smashing half the house next door as it fell.

The stretch between the waterfront and higher ground was much cleaner than a few hours before, and work was declared done for the day. A few visitors ran to rinse off in the ocean while others guzzled clean water and wolfed down miniature bananas. The guests climbed into their buses, and were soon rewarded at headquarters with a lunch of rice, dal, tandoori chicken, and locally-made cheese and baguettes. A few village men began to inspect their fishing boats, and the other residents went back to their homes or temporary shelters. In a day or two the visitors would arrive again to confront the next hundred meters.


Post a Comment

<< Home