News / Asia

Q&A with Michele Gamburd: Nine Years After the Tsunami

On December 26, 2004, a massive undersea earthquake near Sumatra spawned a massive tsunami that devastated coastal areas of the India Ocean, including Sri Lanka. What poured in immediately after was relief aid that produced a sudden tidal wave of changes in social structures. Michele Ruth Gamburd, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Portland State University, in the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon, is very familiar with the small village of Naeaegama. Naeaegame is about 80 kilometers south of the capital, Colombo, and where Gamburd conducted years of research. Her latest book, The Golden Wave, was a product of her return visit following the tsunami. Below are excerpts from the interview.
 
STEVENSON: The tsunami hits, and we have all of this aid flowing into an area that probably was not that wealthy, although tourism certainly brings in a fair bit of money. And then we set up these interesting social dynamics.
 
GAMBURD: One of the things that the aid did, it artificially inflated social statuses. This particular event brought in a lot of help in the form of new houses, new fishing boats, new bicycles, new sewing machines, pots and pans, and mosquito nets, and clothing, and school books and all things that mark status. All people felt that the survivors of the tsunami deserved help. But they also were a little bit worried that people who didn’t deserve help were profiting perhaps a little too much from that relief that came in. There is a poem that I heard in several forms that conveys people’s sense of what happened with the aid. “The people who had, lost. The people who didn’t have, gained.” So it is basically a poem about class, that the middle class people who were fairly well off lost more than they received in compensation. But the poor people who did not have very much received more than they lost. So there is a sense then that everybody ended up “leveled” by the tsunami.


STEVENSON: How was this foreign aid distributed? Was it handled by the NGO’s (non-government organizations) or was the aid given to local authorities who then doled it out?

GAMBURD: That is a really interesting question and one that caused a lot of concern in Sri Lanka. Who is administering this aid and how are they doing it?  If you think about it, it is not that easy. There are a lot of well-meaning donors who have things that they want to give, and you have a lot of deserving tsunami survivors who have needs that need to be filled. And how do you match that aid, the money or the things to the deserving people. How do you know those are the right people? The NGOs in particular were looking for local intermediaries who could speak the language, who were hopefully politically savvy, who knew the people, and who would keep them from getting ripped off.

STEVENSON: We are now at the anniversary of the tsunami. Next year will mark 10 years since that event. As you have seen it, how has the trajectory of this village changed because of the tsunami and this aid that has flowed in, now that we have a little bit of time perspective?

GAMBURD: That is a good question. For most people along the southwest coast, the tsunami is over. Life is returning to normal. I would say though there has been a big change along the coast. In the relief process was they set a 300 meter buffer zone on the southwest coast. A zone where nobody could rebuild. The problem arose however in that it was very difficult to find suitable land. The government of Sri Lanka was going to purchase that land and let it be used for that reconstruction. The land that they could find at an affordable price was inland in spots that were not very desirable. The buffer zone was reduced from 300 meters to 100 meters. Everybody whose house had been within the 300 meter zone were still given a house and land elsewhere. They were not given deeds to that land so they were unable to sell it. So what happened then between the 100 and 300 meter mark was this massive transfer of property. Rich interested parties were busy buying up land from people who had lived there for generations.

STEVENSON: You are based in Oregon, a place where many say a tsunami is possible and could happen there. What do you feel that we learn from what happened in Sri Lanka to apply for preparedness in Oregon, or Sri Lanka or elsewhere?

GAMBURD: I feel that the media, TV and radio, has done a very good job of bringing tsunamis to people’s consciousness here in Oregon and around the globe. The last big one is dated to January 26, 1700. And we know this because that tsunami propagated all the way across the Pacific and hit the coast of Japan, just as Japan’s tsunami of 2011 propagated across the Pacific and hit various spots on the Oregon and the California coast here in the U.S. The media really brought it home what it means when water in this quantity flows ashore and comes in where it is not welcome. So I think it is a warning to people who live in the run-up zone. I think the other thing that we need to think about is how we involve the survivors in their own rescue.

Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

You May Like

Photogallery US to Send 3,000 Troops to Liberia in Expanded Ebola Effort

At US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Obama is to announce troop deployment, other details of US plans to fight Ebola outbreak More

Hong Kong Democracy Calls Spread to Macau

Macau and Hong Kong are China’s two 'special administrative regions' which gives them a measure of autonomy More

Kenyan Coastal Town Struggles With Deadly June Attacks

Three months after al-Shabab militants allegedly attacked their town, some Mpeketoni residents are still bitter, question who was really behind the assaults More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Communityi
X
September 16, 2014 2:06 PM
Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid