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New Book Looks at How Tsunami Transformed A Thai Village

The 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia is no longer making daily headlines around the world, but the massive recovery effort is far from over. American writer Erich Krauss describes the impact of the disaster on a coastal village in Thailand in his new book .

Erich Krauss is a specialist in natural disasters and a long-time student of Thai culture. He was visiting northern Thailand in December, 2004, when the tsunami struck the country's southern coast. "I managed to get there about 12 days after the tsunami," he recalls, "and the first place I went was the temple, which was housing 5 thousand bodies at the time. There were children looking for their parents, and parents trying to find their kids. I wanted to help people who weren't getting help at the time, and that turned out to be the village of Nam Khem. Most of the relief foundations had gone to the tourist areas. But Nam Khem is a small village backing up to the tourist area, and it had been pretty much forgotten in the first days after the tsunami."

The four families whose stories are told in Wave of Destruction had struggled with tragedy and financial hardship throughout their lives. A man named Puek had been blinded in a car crash, while another man, Wimon, had lost several previous homes to fires and other disasters. "He came to Nam Khem as a last effort to start a life, to build a family," Erich Krauss says. "And he was able to do that working for a dollar a day, and then it was ripped out from under him once again."

Mr. Krauss says Wimon was fishing at sea when the tsunami struck. "He went over four 12-meter high waves in his long tail boat. The 23 other boats in the immediate area were all destroyed, and the passengers were killed. So he was the only one to survive, and then he gets home to realize that his wife and two daughters got hit by the tsunami as well."

The book describes the terror of the tsunami from other perspectives as well: villagers running for their lives as the waves approached, submerged by the deluge, battered by debris, and clinging to their children, only to have them pulled away by the tsunami's force. A severely injured woman named Nang waited for hours to get treatment, huddled in the corner of a hospital room.

Erich Krauss says the doctors he spoke with acknowledged that they generally treated foreign vacationers first. "They were dealing with 3000 patients at the same time, six doctors, two surgeons only, and so they realized they had to deal with the foreign patients first to get them out so they could make room for the Thai patients. But most of them said, 'We're used to hardship.' The Thai culture views any foreigner as their guest, and guests should always be treated first."

The survivors faced other challenges as they tried to piece their lives back together. A woman named Dang had been fighting a company's effort to remove her and other families from their homes, and build a new resort in their neighborhood. The battle continued even after the disaster. "She was just trying to get back home to find the bodies of her six-year-old daughter and her father," says Erich Krauss, "and they would not let her do that. They sent soldiers into the area and had bodyguards posted around the land. Finally she organized her people, and they marched back on the land. And they tried to starve her out by not letting any donations reach her. So her plight was showing what they had to face in addition to the loss."

Dang's battle was one of many tales of heroism in the book. The fisherman Wimon lost eight family members in the tsunami, including a daughter. Erich Krauss says Wimon channeled his grief into helping call attention to the plight of his village. "He went out and got some of the main reporters in Thailand to come see the devastation. So he brought help into the area, and then as a reward they said, 'We'll buy you a long tail boat, we'll buy you a house. What do you need personally?' And he said he wanted 70 psychologists to come to Nam Khem. He had lost so much, and he was giving so much back to his community."

A year later, Erich Krauss says the people of Nam Khem are making progress in the struggle to rebuild their village, but much still needs to be done. "A lot of foundations have gotten boats for the fishermen, so they're back out to sea. Even though the soldiers have built hundreds of homes, some people are afraid to move into those homes for fear of another wave. Some people are afraid to move into those homes for fear of losing donations they get at the temporary housing camps. So physically, the village is definitely looking like it's coming back together, but the trick is going to be getting people to move back home and start their lives over again."

Erich Krauss urges people who want to continue helping tsunami victims to contribute to organizations like the Red Cross, and specify how they want the money used. He is currently working to aid a group of 60 elderly villagers in Nam Khem, who lost their families in the disaster. "They're at the temporary housing camps," the author explains. "They have enough rice to eat, but no meat and no vegetables. They've been overlooked in the rebuilding process. So my first goal is to get them food and then create some programs to make them feel they're active in society again, getting them to work with orphaned children or distributing food at the housing camp, things of that nature."

Erich Krauss believes one of the hardest challenges facing survivors of the tsunami is dealing with the psychological impact of what happened. Houses can be rebuilt and livelihoods restored, but villagers continue to be haunted by memories of the tsunami, grief for the irreplaceable losses of that day, and lingering fears that another huge wave might one day strike.

Wave of Destruction was published by Rodale Inc.