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Relief Efforts in Sri Lanka

Aired January 1, 2005 - 08:30   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Relief supplies from a number of nations are piling up in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia. But rough weather and rough roads are making it tough to distribute the aid. A U.S. military helicopters are dropping supplies to hard hit areas.
Crowds of desperate survivors rushed one chopper as it briefly touched down. More than 138,000 and climbing. That's the death toll this morning from the earthquake and tsunamis last Sunday. Thousands of people remain missing. The magnitude 9.0 quake triggered massive waves from Indonesia to regions as far away as Somalia.

Japan this morning has become the single biggest donor to tsunami relief efforts. The Japanese prime minister has dramatically boosted his nation's pledge of relief. And now it stands at $5000 million in grant aid.

HOUSECALL begins right now.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hello and welcome to a special edition of HOUSECALL. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the island of Sri Lanka.

It is nighttime here in Sri Lanka, while it is daytime in the U.S. on the other side of the world. More than 40,000 people have died, more than a million people have been displaced, all at the hands of a terrible earthquake and a major tsunami which came ashore earlier this week.

The rising death toll shows no signs of slowing down. Poor sanitation, a failing public health system, and inadequate medications all threaten to claim thousands of more lives. I've been here since Tuesday and I've had a chance to sit down to talk to the people who have been most affected by the tsunami, those who need medical care, those who have lost loved ones, and those who have lost their homes.


GUPTA (voice-over): These devout Christian sisters had celebrated Christmas together the day before, as they had done for the past 40 years. Even after they were married, they chose to live next door to each other. And on the morning of December 26, they woke up at 5:30, had a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of rice and dall, and then three hours later watched as both of their husbands drowned in the tsunami while saving their children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): When the second wave came, we were looking for our son. And my husband went out to search for him and found him in a tree. He rescued him and both of them were running for their lives. Later, my son was found alive, but my husband was missing. He had been drowned.

GUPTA: It all happened in less than 20 minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The water was rising and the sea was coming. We ran for our lives, but it caught us. And the water almost came up to our necks. We managed to escape from the first wave, which destroyed our house. The second wave came and took us by surprise. There was just so much water, I didn't know what to do.

GUPTA: Remarkably, their story is not unique. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Marianna Sebastian Francis are among the 3,000 displaced people in this town alone. Its coastal location turned this already deprived fishing community into one of the most vulnerable in the country. Most here are now widows and orphans.

So what are they going to do now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We don't know what to do next. Right now, we don't have a source of income. We'll need to look for jobs, but they are scarce.

GUPTA: Days later, they have their health for the most part. Suerna (ph) had her leg banged up pretty badly. Marianna has bandages all over her hand, but they're not from the tsunami, she told me, but rather from carrying the coffin of her husband and then refusing to let it go.


GUPTA: And that death toll continues to rise. The concern now though is the second wave, the wave of cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, malaria. What's to be done about those diseases that could cause more death than the tsunami itself? We asked a leading doctor.


GUPTA: So what goes through your mind when you walk into a place like this?

SHIRANTHA RATWATT, APOLLO HOSPITALS: Well, the first thing that strikes you is the number of people that is accumulated in one place without even the basic facilities. And these people are depressed, devastated. They have lost so much. And they have no hopes of a future at least at the moment.

GUPTA: What is the biggest concern that you have, now that they've survived the tsunami, what's their biggest immediate concern?

RATWATT: The biggest problem is with regard to condition, again, with there is a very real need, I mean, very real danger of diseases spreading. People are not in a position in a psychological state to abide by the normal rules of hygiene.

GUPTA: How are you going to be able to take care of all these people? There are so many of them. RATWATT: It's going to be very difficult. I mean...

GUPTA: Possible?

RATWATT: Probably not, at least not short term. We are thinking about 1.5 million people displaced. That's one-tenth of the population and a developing country...

GUPTA: What's the biggest thing Sri Lanka needs now?

RATWATT: Now that it has -- one big thing, it's probably shelter.

GUPTA: Shelter.

RATWATT: I think so. Because most people have -- those who have survived, have minor injuries and -- which have been taken care of. And the biggest question we will have to answer at that stage is how to provide the shelter, how to rebuild the houses which have been totally destroyed in most cases.

GUPTA: What's the biggest thing that's surprised you about everything that's happened?

RATWATT: It is the psychological trauma, more than the physical injury. It is the way people deal with this kind of loss. You know, most of them have lost their children. Some, their parents, others their husbands, wage earners.

And it has been a lot on them. But surprisingly, the people are coping up. I personally don't know how.

GUPTA: They say that something good comes out of something bad.

RATWATT: Well, yes. I mean, this has brought almost the whole country together. A lot of people have done their part. And they feel the need to do so.

GUPTA: How is this going to end?

RATWATT: If another tsunami doesn't come? Well, it's a big question. Initial task is to probably take care of the people who are displaced, prevent any major infections (UNINTELLIGIBLE) which will endanger their lives further and also the rest of the community. And once that is done, how to help them deal with this trauma.


RATWATT: And how to help them to rebuild their lives in the best way possible.


GUPTA: The tsunami is long gone, but it has left many children without parents. When HOUSECALL continues, we're going to show you what local efforts are being done to try and provide the smallest victims with a safe haven.

Also, do you want to help? We're going to tell you how. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSECALL. We're coming to you from Dodangoda (ph), Sri Lanka. That's south of the country's capital, Colombo. But it is in Colombo where we found the organizers of a makeshift orphanage. And the remarkable thing is they're pledging to take in all the children left without parents.


GUPTA (voice-over): Here is the consequences of the tsunami, a Buddhist temple turned to orphanage. And hundreds of new, nameless faces. Vulnerable looks that only children can give.

We're obviously surrounded by a lot of children...


GUPTA: All displaced by the tsunami?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. For the past three days, they have been here.

GUPTA: Hard to believe they can smile. Some are still painfully shy. And most, for the time being anyway, oblivious to just how much their future has changed.

How many displaced have there been as a result of the tsunami?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't have the correct figures, but should be children and the women.

GUPTA: More than a million at least. And many of the families from some of the most deprived areas of the country, now more deprived than ever.

What do you do for them here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually now what's happened is here, we supply the food and the medicine and whatever the basic facilities they need at the moment.

GUPTA: At a time when care and relief arrive in cargo planes, no amount of aid can ever give them back their parents. But still, here's where the story gets a little hopeful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any children under 10 years who are without the parents, just let us know and we are going to take care of them. And we will plan their future.

GUPTA: You can really tell how bad something is in a country by how the kids are doing, can't you? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are the vulnerable groups. And these are the future of the country, right?

GUPTA: Right. And so, by that measure, Sri Lanka is doing better than you might expect.


GUPTA: Behind me is what remains of a home on the south coast of Sri Lanka, another example of the devastation caused by the tsunami. And five million people in this part of the world are now without basic necessities, safe water, safe food and medications. But aids organizations are hard at work, trying to get the right supplies to the right people at the right time.


GUPTA (voice-over): Everyone keeps saying help is on the way. Problem is, it isn't here yet. So in a country where public health barely exists, the people of Sri Lanka are rising up to care for their own.

What is the most important thing that you're seeing out in the field?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are a couple of immediate public health problems out there. Outbreaks of diarrhea and certain other infectious diseases, taking place on the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) now.

GUPTA: Dr. Vinya Ariyahatne, head of the country's largest NGO, gave us a behind the scene look at one of the earliest command centers. It was set up just two hours after the first wave hit shore. 200 doctors were organized and immediately sent all over the country. And this, a rudimentary map kept track of the displaced and the dead.

VINYA ARIYAHATNE, DIRECTOR, SARVODAYA RELIEF: It's always getting updated like every hour. When our workers informed in this area. These are the casualties.

GUPTA: The situation is even more complicated because many experts make the mistake of thinking that all parts of Sri Lanka face the same difficulties.

I think what's sort of startling is that all these different districts have very different needs, everything from milk food to salt, 500 kilograms, boxes of matches, 5,000 packets. You got it down pretty specifically.

And it's these details that make all the difference, getting the right supplies to the right places at the right times. And only organizations that are boots on the ground have that right information.

Organizations such as the NGO Sarvodaya, a Sanskrit word meaning "awakening of all."

Do you think the tsunami has inspired awakening of all?

ARIYAHATNE: Tsunami is a wave of destruction. At the same time, there's a tremendous amount of compassion. So we think that there is a wave of compassion as well. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: It can almost be too much for the heart to bear, learning of simple injuries that are now death threats. Widows who are too young, far too young to have lost a spouse and orphans who now live in temples.

What's even worse and more frustrating, though, is that for these survivors, things might be getting worse because of disease. That story when we come back.


GUPTA: This is just an example of the devastation caused by the tsunami. These are railroad tracks literally pried from the earth's surface.

But now there are new challenges that lie ahead. Health officials worry that diseases like cholera, dysentery, malaria, could kill as many people as the tsunami itself. Poor sanitation and a failing public health system are putting the people of this region at grave risk.


GUPTA (voice-over): The biggest goal here in Sri Lanka is to assure those who survived the tsunami stay living. Health officials warning tonight that as many people may die from disease in these tsunami devastated areas as died from the actual tsunami itself.

And from what we've seen here on the ground in Sri Lanka, we'd have to agree. You see, the public health system here struggles in the best of times. Now it seems practically non-existent.

Makeshift morgues, burial sites often overflowing with the gruesome sight of decomposing bodies. Hospitals without reliable electricity, running water, or communication systems, now treating everything from broken bones and infections, to dehydration and heat stroke. But it's an epidemic of infectious diseases that worries doctors here most.

It's the water supply that now poses the biggest danger to those who survived the killer waves of water that swept ashore here Sunday. Water and food contaminated by human waste and saltwater from the sea can lead to diseases like cholera and dysentery, which can be fatal.

Standing water from the flooding can attract mosquitoes, spawning outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever. Those left homeless, those trying to survive on the streets also face the threat of respiratory illness from bacteria and viruses that quickly spread when unsanitary conditions exist. Relief efforts now focus on water purification systems and distribution of bottled water being flown in by aid groups. Quick burial of bodies and clean-up of sewage and debris, the providing of safe and sanitary shelter to those who have been left homeless, as well as clean temporary medical clinics to treat the sick, as well as the injured. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: In the minutes and hours after the tsunami, many people became unintended heroes, reaching out to strangers and saving lives. We found one family that turned from being tourists into miracle workers. They're a family of doctors.


GUPTA (voice-over): At a time when many tourists and vacationers have vividly recounted their stories of survival and loss, one family can tell the story of their own personal relief effort.

W. T. MAHESWARAN, DR., VOLUNTEER DOCTOR: Well, we had come from the U.K. from a holiday and merely cut short our holiday because of the things that happened here.

DHANUSHA MAHESWARAN, DR., VOLUNTEER DOCTOR: don't think we've ever had anything like this before. I mean, first you're in shock. And then you just say well, see we're not in the mood to travel around and see holiday stuff anymore. And so, you just think you need to do something.

W. MAHESWARAN: Today we have visited five camps and we have treated roughly about 400 patients.

GUPTA: The Maheswaran family emigrated to the U.K. years ago, but have managed to return to beautiful Sri Lanka for holiday every few years. But as the entire world now knows, this trip was different. Father W.T. had been a medical doctor for more than 40 years. Dr. Dhanusha is 24 years old and had just graduated from medical school.

W. MAHESWARAN: We heard about this on the radio. And then we were traveling on the car radio.

D. MAHESWARAN: It was the right time and we felt we should be able to do something. So we couldn't leave really.

GUPTA: Vivia is 20 years old and in her third year of medical school. The Maheswaran doctors have joined the handful of Sri Lankan doctors who are in their native country to offer their services.

VIVIA MAHESWARAN, MEDICAL STUDENT: Every single day, you turn the TV on. And the death toll was just...


V. MAHESWARAN: ...even higher than maybe even 10 minutes ago. We were quite lucky. And we just sort of wan to give back in some way. I mean...

GUPTA: Do you feel like you've did some good here?


D. MAHESWARAN: It's really nice to feel like you've actually done something.


GUPTA: When HOUSECALL returns, we'll show you some ways you can get involved with the relief effort. Stay tuned.


GUPTA: Welcome back to a special edition of HOUSECALL. The new year here in Sri Lanka, as with other parts of the world, is a time of celebration. Although for the displaced and the deprived, it's been a significant time of hardship. Still, we found that many took time to ring in the New Year.


GUPTA (voice-over): We wondered what would happen here in Sri Lanka on New Year's Eve. And in many ways, we were surprised. Typically in many cultures, festivities are stopped, even forbidden after great tragedies like the tsunami.

Sri Lanka, which is 70 percent Buddhist, is no different. But at least here in one southern Sri Lankan fishing town, something quite different seems to have happened.

With a quiet resolve, these 3,000 displaced and deprived put on their best clothes, and literally rose up, marched, prayed and lit candles. An optimistic group that celebrated, despite grave hardships, the simple fact that they had survived. Proof as the bells ring in the New Year, that a wave, no matter how big or strong, can't carry everything away.


GUPTA: Over the past half hour, you have witnessed the devastation caused by the worst natural disaster most of us will ever see in our lifetime. The stories are tragic, no doubt, but as we learned as well, sometimes a little bit of good comes from something so bad.

Stay with CNN for all the latest information on the tsunami disaster. I'll be here throughout the week to provide updates for the health and human toll of this devastating act of Mother Nature.

Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.


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