Chennai, Dec 26: The 2004 tsunami that left over 8,000 people dead and lives of several lakhs upside down as it carved a trail of destruction and despair in Tamil Nadu also taught the administration several valuable lessons in disaster management and relief, said a senior official who was then heading a district which faced the brunt.
“It was a very costly lesson in disaster rehabilitation, though we still wish the lesson could have been learnt in a text-book than being on the field post a major disaster,” state Health Secretary J.Radhakrishnan, then collector of Nagapattinam that was worst-affected among the state’s 13 coastal districts with 6,100 deaths, told IANS.
“The 2004 tsunami taught the government and officials several lessons on being prepared to meet the known and unknown hazards; involvement of community in reconstruction and rehabilitation; the essence of speed in decision-making; the administrative model to meet the immediate needs of the affected and others,” he said.
According to Radhakrishnan, whose grit and determination on the post-tsunami period is still recalled gratefully by villagers of Akkaraipettai in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu’s experience in rehabilitation and reconstruction activities is now taught to Indian Administrative Service officials. Radhakrishnan said the first lesson learnt is to be prepared for not only known hazards but also unknown ones. He said Nagapattinam is a cyclone-prone area but what was not known till 2004 was about a tsunami’s effect. “Even a country like Japan had to face a cascading effect of the earthquake in 2011. First there was an earthquake that triggered a tsunami. When the giant waves hit the land, nuclear power plants were severely affected,” he said.
According to him, risk reduction is the goal in the long run while early warning systems are to be in place. Recalling Tamil Nadu’s experience in managing the situation, Radhakrishnan said: “Firstly the political support for fast decision-making was there.” A series of Government Orders were issued that gave officials at the ground level flexibility and financial authority to take decisions fast.”Realising the importance of NGOs in the rehabilitation and reconstruction activities, another government order was issued setting out the template on how the NGOs and the government could work together.
“For fast decision-making, a mini-collectorate model was adopted. Instead of one collector for a district, there were 11 self-contained teams vested with financial powers to oversee relief operations in several villages,” Radhakrishnan said. Within couple of days of the disaster, collectors were given Rs.1 crore in cash to spend on immediate relief, food, medicine, retrieval and disposal of bodies.
“Official teams pitched their tents even in remote places so as to reach the unreached,” Radhakrishnan said. NGOs were also involved in the rehabilitation activities based on their expertise. With the disaster leaving a large number of children dead and many losing their spouses, the government allowed surgery to reverse birth control operations, which helped many couples to have a child again.
Radhakrishnan said the government also opened an orphanage for children who had lost both or either one of their parents. “There were over 100 children at the Annai Sathya Government Orphanage. Over the years the numbers have come down as the children turned adults,” he said.
On seeing the sudden death of several thousands and interacting with those who were affected by the disaster, Radhakrishnan said his perspective of life has really changed. “When there was a false tsunami alarm a couple of days after the disaster, people at Akkaraipettai village did not try to save whatever was left of their belongings but prayed that there should be no loss of life,” Radhakrishnan said, noting life is much more beyond material issue.
“What kept us going was that even those who had lost their entire family were involved in rescue and recovery efforts. I know of several people whose stories would make you cry even now. There is Parameswaran who had lost 11 members of his family. But he involved himself in the recovery efforts,” he recalled.
He also recalled a honest family who came to him and returned the compensation amount after their son returned home safely. During those tough times, the need of the hour is to work along with others and not mouth empathetic words, he said.
“The survivors were involved in recovering and clearing the bodies. Most of the bodies were recovered by Dec 31, 2004. However, the last body was recovered Jan 31, 2005,” Radhakrishnan said.
According to him, the real heroes are the faceless people like the drivers of excavators who were brought from other districts. The scale of disaster was massive and they had to dig the earth and bury the bodies non-stop for several days.
As to the children at the orphanage, he said they never asked for anything for themselves but enquired about his welfare. “Whenever I felt down, I used to go to the orphanage. Moving with those children would energise me,” Radhakrishan said.