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 Early Nigeria Results Show Buhari Leading; Tampering Concerns Mount

One local group monitoring polls is concerned politicians might use security agencies to 'fiddle with the election collation process' at state level More

UN: 7,300 Civilians Killed in Boko Haram Insurgency

A senior UN humanitarian official tells the United Nations Security Council 1,000 people have been killed this year More

Turkish President Warns Iran About Trying to Dominate Middle East

Warning comes amid growing concerns inside Turkey that it will be sucked into a sectarian conflict with its neighbor More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadistsi
X
Greg Flakus
March 30, 2015 6:48 PM
At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video With Coalition Airstrikes, Iraq Entering 'Last Page' of IS Battle

American warplanes joined Iraq's battle against the so-called 'Islamic State' in northern Iraq late Wednesday, as Iraqi ground troops launched a massive assault on Tikrit. Analysts say the offensive could take the coalition a step further towards Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State forces. Others say it could also deepen already-dangerous sectarian tensions in the region. VOA's Heather Murdock has more from Cairo.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Hi-tech Motorbike Helmet's Goal: Improve Road Safety

In cities with heavily congested traffic, people can get around much faster on a motorcycle than in a car. But a rider who is not sure of his route may have to stop to look at the map or consult a GPS. A Russian start-up company is working to make navigation easier for motorcyclists. Designers at Moscow-based LiveMap are developing a smart helmet with a built-in navigation system, head-mounted display and voice recognition. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video DOJ: Illinois National Guard Soldier Tried to Join ISIS

U.S. federal law enforcement agents arrested two suburban Chicago men accused of trying to join ISIS overseas, while also plotting attacks in the United States. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from the Midwest state of Illinois, one of those arrested is a soldier of the Illinois National Guard.
Video

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Traditional push-rim wheelchairs create a lot of stress for arm, shoulder and neck muscles and joints. A redesigned chair, based on readily available bicycle technology, radically increases mobility while reducing the physical effort. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More