Disaster draws New Orleans and Nagapattinam together

By Papri Sri Raman


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Chennai : In the aftermath of disaster, similarities and the desire to learn from the others' experience has brought a group of Americans all the way to India's east coast to meet victims of the 2004 tsunami.

They hope such people-to-people exchanges will help better disaster management and mitigation.

The Americans, members of civil society groups, have been touring Cuddalore, Puducherry and Nagapattinam, which were among some of the worst hit districts in southern India when the tsunami struck.

They have found that two and a half years on, "there is a lot more to be done" just as "not enough has been done towards the rehabilitation of the victims of the devastating hurricane Katrina on American's Gulf of Mexico coast".

"What we have seen and heard has impacted our understanding of the tremendous similarities between the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina," a team member said here.

With a short film on the August 2005 Katrina hurricane, they emphasized that in some aspects the Katrina-inflicted damages were of a more lasting kind than the tsunami's.

In the case of both, the discriminations in rehabilitation stood out in bias towards the poor, children and women, the visitors said.

"Before, during and after the disasters, the needs of the least powerful must be made a priority," said American Nathan Shroyer of the Neighbourhood Partnership Network.

Indian activist C. Nicholas of the Dalit Mannurimai Koottamaippu described how the backward classes of coastal communities have been deprived of adequate relief and rehabilitation by the village and district administrations though millions of dollars have been donated for tsunami relief.

Shroyer lauded the "resilience of India's working people and their persistent demand for human dignity".

The American visitors agreed that grassroot groups and communities in India were better organised than in New Orleans and lessons needed to be learned from the Indian experience.

Sharon Hansaw of Coastal Women for Change noted how African American women lost the most jobs after Katrina even as Alex Tuscano from Kanykumari district described how women-headed families found it difficult to get aid after tsunami.

In the film on Katrina, the Americans noted how absolutely no rehabilitation structure was in place, though the US had an early warning system.

"Only those who had cars headed out of the three coastal states in the Gulf of Mexico region. Some 100,000 people who did not own cars were left out of the evacuation, among them the elderly, women and children," pointed out team leader Bill Quigly, a US-based lawyer.

The film also showed how water had covered 90,000 sq km of the land around the Gulf of Mexico and in New Orleans region water stood at 10 feet for weeks unlike the 2004 tsunami, where the sea came and left the coast within minutes.

After the hurricane, private companies stepped in with police and buses that transported thousands up to 1,500 km away, without giving anyone the opportunity to say where they wanted to go.

"The government wants to build a new New Orleans and original communities are not encouraged to return and rebuild their lives. But casinos, resorts and other private enterprise are allowed to build on the coast," Quigly said.

"There are still 70,000 Katrina displaced families living in trailers in Los Angles," he added.

Protesting what they called "Disaster capitalism", the visitors said that after each disaster, commercial and financial interests seized upon the suffering and loss of people as opportunities of profit.

"The rebuilding process has been driven not by the needs of the people but by economic and corporate interests," Quigly said.

The Indians told the visitors that in places like Nagapattinam and Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, fishing communities had been moved away from the coast.

"In India, beaches act as landing harbours for the catch. Now these vacated coastal land is being handed over to build harbours and for private development," said S. Subbu, an Indian.

"The most vulnerable suffered the most in both countries," remarked Quigly.