Tsunami: Hope in the Midst of Disaster

Article excerpt

The lives of many were changed forever when a tsunami struck on the morning of December 26, 2004, as a result of an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia registering 9.0 on the Richter scale. In India, 10,022 lives were lost, with 5,617 officially missing (Vijaykumar, Thara, John, & Chelleppa, 2006). The state of Tamil Nadu was the most affected region in mainland India (7,923 lost), and the Nagapattinam district, a center of fishing industry in Tamil Nadu, suffered the most death and devastation (Arya, Mandal, & Muley, 2006), with 6,023 lives lost.

Aftershocks in the nearby Andaman and Nicobar Islands sent waves of fear among the survivors, further debilitating their spirits (Math, Girimaji, et al., 2006). "Disasters are potentially traumatic events which impose massive collective stress consequent to violent encounters with nature, technology or human kind (Math, John, et al., 2008, p. 29). Experts Math, John, et al. (2008) and Vijayakumar (2006) say that children and adolescents are much more vulnerable than adults to such traumatic experiences, as they are likely to feel "helplessness and passivity, lack of usual responsiveness, generalized fear, heightened arousal and confusion" (Vijayakumar et al., 2006, p. 226).

The aim of this article is to describe the rescue efforts in the tsunami-affected area of one non-governmental organization (NGO), Suyam Charitable Trust (Suyam for short), as described by its trustees, and to make a few recommendations from the lessons learned. Although we recognize that several NGOs were involved in providing relief assistance, here we are illuminating the immediate efforts of one NGO, Suyam, in one village, Akkaraipetai in Nagapattinam District, India. We make no claims about the positive or negative effects or any of the services provided.

The first author interviewed the second and third authors, the founders of Suyam, a nonprofit organization, and sought their support in providing accurate information about relief efforts. Suyam was formally registered under the Trust Act of India in August 1999 by a group of young college students and experienced social workers (under 30 years of age). Prior to the 2004 tsunami, Suyam had previously collected and distributed resources to survivors of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake.


Ganesan (2006) proposes that successful disaster relief should be varied and that all agencies should be committed to providing high-quality service. Provision of such quality services is possible when the agency is culturally competent, involves local volunteers, and emphasizes the importance of attending to mental health needs and provides training to individuals working with children and families on mental health and sensitive care. The training focused on empowering the survivors and giving them coping skills by employing narratives and drawings as ways children and adults can express their thoughts and fears (Math, Tandon, et al., 2006).

Cultural Competence

Any services provided to surviving families need to be culturally sensitive. It is important that all agencies have the necessary knowledge of the local administrative setup and bring a cultural awareness to relief work (Chandra, Pandav, & Bhugra, 2006). "Collectivist (or socio-centric) cultures are seen as traditional and emphasize consciousness along with collective identity and emotional interdependence, sharing duties and obligations" (Bhugra & Ommeren, 2006, p. 213). The reliance on kinship in collectivist societies may be stronger than it is in individualistic societies. It is therefore vital for relief agencies to be proficient with the cultural norms and values of the affected community. For instance, a social worker who is familiar with the administrative setup and knows how that culture defines loss and grief, as well as who they turn to in times of distress, would be able to tailor assistance in order to empower and enable the group members to deal with their situation. …