When a region is hit by a natural disaster, immediate humanitarian relief is important. But so, too, is long-range rebuilding. Three DMS alumni who are seasoned international relief workers share their stories about helping out after the 2004 Asian tsunami—and their advice for the future.
Some of the numbers are terrifying: Waves over 50 feet high, traveling at speeds of up to 500 miles an hour. Nearly 300,000 people killed. More than a million people left homeless.
And some of the numbers are touching: More than $13 billion raised worldwide for the relief effort. Hundreds of tons of supplies shipped to survivors. Thousands of people from all over the world rushing to help—whether or not they had any previous experience in providing disaster relief.
In that last fact—as heartwarming as it is —lies one of the important lessons to be learned, a year later, from the monstrous tsunami triggered on December 26, 2004. After the 9.1-magnitude Sumatra-Andaman earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean floor, mammoth waves crashed onto the coasts of 11 Southeast Asian countries, flattening everything in their paths and wreaking havoc in coastal regions of Indonesia, India, Thailand, and elsewhere. And in the waves' wake came much help from abroad—but some of it, unfortunately, was not as effective as it was well-meant.
Among the seasoned relief workers who rendered aid in the aftermath of the tsunami were three DMS alumni—Dr. Karen Hein '68 and Drs. Stephen Atwood and William Aldis, both members of the Class of '70. With the benefit of a year of reflection, the three share their experiences helping out and their thoughts about how—and how not—disaster relief efforts can be most effectively managed. All three either work for or have had significant volunteer experience with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Pediatrician Karen Hein was at home in Vermont on December 26, 2004, when the tsunami hit 12,000 miles away. A few weeks later, she was in India on a Christian Children's Fund (CCF) team, helping with the recovery effort in a community that had been devastated by the tsunami. The CCF, an ecumenical organization with programs in 33 countries, was "perfectly positioned to respond to [the tsunami], since they were right there in the villages the day before the tsunami [and already] had the critically important links with the affected people, communities, regions, and other NGOs and the government that permitted action literally the day after the
The serenity of the schooners at anchor, top, in Indonesia's historic sailboat harbor at Paotere, gave way after the December 2004 tsunami to scenes of devastation like those in southern Thailand— clockwise from above, smashed houses, beached fishing boats, a destroyed resort, and a flooded village.
tsunami hit," says Hein, who is a member of the CCF's board of directors.
Atwood and Aldis, who are both based in Bangkok, Thailand—Atwood works for UNICEF's East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, and Aldis for the World Health Organization (WHO)—teamed up to help with tsunamirelief efforts in one of the most affected villages in southern Thailand—Ban Nam Khem in the Phang Nga District. "Bill and I traveled together in what must have been the easiest joint effort WHO and UNICEF ever put together —it amounted to a phone call, tickets on the same flight, and moving in the same vehicles to the disaster site," says
Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine. The photo above of schooners at anchor is from a stock photography source. All the other photos in this feature were taken by the three DMS alumni who are its subjects—the ones in India by Hein (or her husband) and the ones in Thailand and Indonesia by Atwood or Aldis.