It struck without warning on working families in poor fishing villages and on vacationing tourists in upscale resorts. The tsunami, caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake 155 miles southeast of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Sumatra, killed more than 150,000 people and left millions homeless along thousands of miles of coastline in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Africa. The numbers will continue to rise as the untreated injured perish and disease spreads. Devastation on such a scale is difficult to comprehend, but it was made real to people around the world through television news reports. Viewers saw villages totally wiped out, bodies strewn across devastated landscapes, grieving parents in shock and orphaned children alone.
Most of the places hit by the tidal wave were already living close to the edge. Throughout much of the region, health care was minimal, transportation was difficult, and poverty was just a bad harvest or bad fishing season away. Those who owned homes and businesses had reached the middle class after years of struggle and sacrifice for themselves and their children. All was washed away in an instant.
The international response has been encouraging. Although slow at the outset, the Bush administration upped its pledge of support to $350 million, second only to Japan’s $500 million. About $2 billion has been pledged so far by governments around the world, but much more will eventually be needed if people are to rebuild their lives and villages. In measuring the U.S. response, the American public should make sure that these are new funds and not just money shifted away from less visible development needs to today’s catastrophe. The White House likes to boast that it has doubled foreign aid, but the increases are going not to developing countries but to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.
In every disaster there are heroesthe hotel manager who sacrificed his life trying to save the grandchild of a guest, the pilot who landed his private plane on an airstrip his government said was unusable, the villagers who struggled to get their boats repaired and back at sea to support their families. Also heroic were the efforts of relief workers who were already in most of these countries dealing with other problems.
Catholic Relief Services, Caritas, Oxfam, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders mobilized to bring fresh water and medical supplies to the devastated areas. Fresh water was the highest priority since drinking polluted water can cause disease and more deaths. Without a quick response, experts predicted the death toll from disease could be as high as the initial number caused directly by the tsunami.
Moving relief supplies to isolated areas proved difficult. Even under the best conditions, many of these areas are not easily accessible. Roads and train tracks were washed out; some airports were put out of commission or were so small they could not deal with the demand. Some outlying islands have still not been heard from. As a result, supplies initially piled up at warehouses and major airports, because they faced bottlenecks that were beyond the capacity of the fractured infrastructure.
Local military with helicopters and trucks proved invaluable in getting supplies to those in need. The U.S. military came to the aid with helicopters and ships. As one U.N. official said, the helicopters were worth their weight in gold, because they could deliver supplies quickly to inaccessible locations.
The outpouring of donations from individuals has been remarkable both in the United States and abroad. In Britain individual donations equal the amount pledged by the government. Compassion fatigue, once feared by charitable agencies, has been put aside, at least for now. But the long-term effort needed to repair and rebuild these areas will be even greater than the critical immediate response. It will take an immense effort lasting months, perhaps even years.
Tragic death through a natural disaster can challenge one’s faith in an all-loving God. But the Gospel call is not to resigned acceptance but to a faith that produces works. The tsunami is a wake-up call to everyone in the global village that our brothers and sisters need our compassion and help. As tragic as this disaster is, the numbers killed in one day can be easily matched and exceeded by the numbers killed in any year all over the world through hunger and preventable diseases. What we saw in an instant plays out every day in slow motion throughout the world in other ways, less dramatic but no less urgent. All of these needs deserve a generous response. Greater preparedness to respond to future disasters through international cooperation is also needed. As citizens of the richest nation on earth, we have a special responsibility to respond. Our faith demands it.