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Disaster Relief Efforts in Areas Hit by Tsunami

December 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: Another hard-hit area was India, where, so far, official estimates put the death toll at more than 11,000. I spoke earlier today with Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times. He’s in Madras, on India’s southeastern coast.

Paul Watson of the LA Times, thanks for joining us. I know you’ve been south of Madras today. Tell us what you’ve seen.

PAUL WATSON: I was in a port city, which had a large number of fishing trawlers up to the length of about 48 feet. Dozens of these were picked up by these tsunami waves and literally dropped in various parts of the port area on peoples’ houses, in their backyards.

One of them was dumped upside down on a large, concrete, pedestrian walkway, which means that anyone who now moves from one side of the port area to the other has to literally crawl through an overturned fishing vessel which is dripping from the crank case with, you know, heavy oil, and you have to weave your way past various cables and winches and fishing nets.

MARGARET WARNER: And then yesterday you were in a, what, a small fishing village also on the southeast coast?

PAUL WATSON: That’s right. Where the first two or three rows of houses took the full force of these tsunami waves, and it literally looked like someone had taken a large hammer and just pulverized the buildings because they were leveled flat.

MARGARET WARNER: The reports we’re getting from the U.N. and others are that at least a third of those who died, maybe as many as half, were children. Does that jibe with what you learned talking to survivors and seeing the dead?

PAUL WATSON: That’s exactly what we were focusing on today. The mass graves that are being dug in the area where we were have mostly women, elderly, and children in them. And we spoke to one man who described for us how in just a matter of seconds this wave came at them, and he lives about 100 yards to 150 yards normally from where the sea meets the shore in the port.

And he had just those few seconds to grab his three-year- old son and then went on this ride of terror on a fifteen to twenty- foot wave that hurtled them about two hundred to three hundred yards and bounced them around off various debris.

And the whole time, he just held on as tightly as he could to his son, trying to keep his head and his son’s head above water, which was full of the stench, he said, of sewage and oil and kept invading into– this was the word he used– his nostrils.

And finally, they were thrown against a wooden structure of some sort. And just the force of that blow on his back forced his arms open, and his son fell out of his arms. And he just sank under this torrent of water, and he hasn’t found the body.

MARGARET WARNER: How… speaking of bodies, to what degree are the bodies being buried or how many are still unburied?

PAUL WATSON: In the city of Nagappattinam, where I was today, some of the residents were still quite angry. They said for the first two days corpses lay in the streets in large numbers, and there just weren’t enough government workers, security forces, ambulance crews, et cetera, to properly clean them up.

A group of young men we spoke to said that people just got tired of the stench and formed volunteer groups and have been burying them themselves in these pits. The situation today, though, I think is much better. Unfortunately, you can still smell death in areas where there’s lots of debris or in village areas where there’s a river, for instance, where it meets the sea. In the flats next to that river area, there are a lot of very tangled thorn shrubs.

One man described how his three daughters had been pulled away from the house where they lived as they were desperately trying to hold on to the windowsills. He found one of his young daughters tangled deep inside one of these thorn shrubs. So people are going to be looking for and finding bodies in the most remote places, I think, for some days, weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: So that daughter of his was dead?

PAUL WATSON: That’s precise… and two other of his daughters were also dead. He found one a couple kilometers away.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us now about the situation for the survivors. I mean, where… are their homes destroyed? Where are they living? Do they have food to eat? Is there clean water to drink?

PAUL WATSON: The people we watched today were picking through the ruins of their houses. And, I mean, you’ve seen these scenes in so many places, so many times, but each time you watch someone trying to decide whether they have any life left, it is just heart breaking. We saw one man who was sitting on a concrete slab, a piece of rubble from a destroyed shop.

And he had taken off his flip- flop sandals and was sitting barefoot with a small, plastic shopping bag. And he was a fisherman. And I asked him if he knew where the boat that he worked on was among all of these dozens of boats that had been tossed willy-nilly. And he said, “Look, no one knows where anything is in this city anymore, and no one knows whether they have enough left to live for.”

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what is the government doing? What did you see in the way of relief, of real relief coming in, either from the government, the Indian government, or from outside, international organizations?

PAUL WATSON: Well, the largest group of people who are most obvious on the streets are non-government groups. And India has a large number of charities which may be religiously affiliated or not, but often do good work very quickly in situations like this. The Indian government, unfortunately, is notorious for its slow-moving bureaucracy.

They seem to be among the last to get there. I have not seen, at least not easily identifiable, large groups of foreign aid or relief organizations. But again, in a country like India, they have structures that operate fairly efficiently. Unfortunately, this country suffers large-scale catastrophes with considerable regularity, so they have systems that kick in pretty quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Paul Watson, thank you so much.

PAUL WATSON: Thank you.