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

Yemen Brings US, Iran Closer to Naval Face-off

US sending two more ships to waters off coast of Yemen to take part in 'maritime security operations' More

Minorities Become Majority Across US

From 2000 to 2013, minorities became the majority in 78 counties in the United States. Here's where those demographic shifts are happening More

Japan's Maglev Train Breaks Own Speed Record

Seven-car 'magnetic levitation' train traveled at more than 600 kilometers per hour during test run Tuesday More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs