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M. P. Ravindra Nathan
From the Frying Pan to the Fire
By M. P. Ravindra Nathan, MD, FACC

After surviving four hurricanes in Florida, I was hoping to get a nice three-week vacation on landing in India just before Christmas. Least did I expect that I would be standing only three miles from one of the beaches where the giant tidal waves hit on Dec. 26, 2004. I had reached my village in Vypeen Island, Kerala, only the night before and was attending the annual family reunion and pooja at my ancestral home. My nephew, who was watching the TV, announced that there was sudden flooding reported along certain sections of the beach and five people had died. I said, “That’s funny, there is not even a drop of rain!” Only when the news unfolded later did we realize that enormous calamity had occurred.

Survivors of Tsunami, seen here in a camp in Malipuram, hope to rebuild their lives.
“Tsunami” used to be a word we toyed around when I was preparing my daughter for spelling bee competitions many years ago. Now, we know the unforeseen destructive power it can unleash. But only if you were in India at that time, you could realize the real magnitude of the devastation caused by the tsunami. Kerala, my home state, and Tamil Nadu were most affected in India. The touching images of death, destruction and suffering constantly displayed on TV are forever unforgettable. And the countless tragic stories, which come out one by one after the event, are enough to break your heart.

From hurricanes to tsunami, is God playing dice with us?

I visited a relief camp set up in my village, examined a few patients and distributed some food and money. Nearly 2,000 people lost their homes in my island alone. They were all sheltered initially in different school buildings and later many were sent to live with their relatives, and the rest transferred to the local hospitals. Most, if not all, were fisher folk who made their living from the sea, which took away all their possessions. As one young mother, who lost her 3-year-old who was playing at the beach, said tearfully, “I am still searching for my baby. Kadalamma (Mother Sea) who is ever-so- kind, will give him back to me.” I didn’t have the heart to quash her hopes and so quickly turned my face lest she should spot my misty eyes.

The contributions are pouring in for the relief work, but more is needed. The Prime Minister’s Fund has already received more than Rs. 400 crores. AAPI (American Association of Physicians of India and its component organizations) have already announced more than Rs. 30 lakhs in donations. The outpouring of sympathy and compassion has been unparalleled.

A team of AAPI delegates under the able supervision of Dr. S. Balasubramaniam, AAPI Chair, Disaster & Trauma Committee and professor of surgery, Los Angeles, has just completed a 10-day visit to some of the worst affected areas (Ground Zero) in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and e-mailed me an update on Jan. 17, 2005. He met with many key persons in both states, including the director of relief, ministers, chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, Red Cross officials and several NGOs and first responders. He visited several camps. Here is a brief report from him:

“1. Immediate relief work, like disposal of bodies, has been completed. 2. Homeless victims are being shifted from temporary shelters to intermediate housing. 3. The state Governments are providing free water, electricity and food. 4. The response of the NGO is commendable especially, especially the Red Cross medical team from Pune, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Medical Center from Cochin, Disaster Medical Action Team from Vellore CMC, KCYM, the Disaster Institute of Pune comprising of retired military and the Army, etc.

It appears a large number of fishermen have lost their fishing boats and nets. They have an intense desire to get back to work at the sea. ‘Sir, help us buy the boats and nets, we will take care of the rest,’ is what they are saying now. The Red Cross is planning to take on the responsibility of total rehabilitation of a few villages in the coastline but they are short of funds. The projected gap may be in excess of $300 million. It does not appear that governmental funds will be available immediately, if at all.”

During the third annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Mumbai that I attended along with the rest of the AAPI delegates, the prime minister and the president of India talked about the tragedy and discussed the admirable relief work in progress. An entire session, led by Jagdish Tytler, the minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, was devoted to disaster preparedness and management in India. Scientists are working hard for a better tsunami warning system. But for now, rebuilding the lives and confidence of all those affected by the tragedy is the prime concern. The prime minister reassured all of us that every rupee contributed to the relief fund will be properly utilized.

At this hour of crisis, let us join hands with the Red Cross and other relief agencies to help the affected folks get back on their feet and rebuild their lives.

Cardiologist Dr. M. P. Ravindra Nathan lives in Brooksville.

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