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January 27, 2005

MPH Student Comes through the Tsunami in Sri Lanka

On Dec. 26, Dr. Navaratnasamy ("Paranie") Paranietharan, an MPH student at the School since June 2004, was driving with his brother along the harbor road outside his native city of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, when the tsunami hit. Trincomalee, on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, is the capitol city of the region; it sits on a south-jutting isthmus. There is a bay to the west of this isthmus and the Indian Ocean to its east. Paranietharan, MBBS, tells his story below.

I was still on holiday there from school. My brother and I were driving in his car. He was buying some property and had taken me to see it. We had looked at the property and were on our way back home about 9 a.m., and we got onto the harbor road along the eastern coast.

Suddenly we noticed that the water was at road level. It's usually around 7 feet below the road there and so we wondered, with all the rain we'd been having, if they'd opened a dam somewhere.

The Kinniya District Hospital, as it was when Dr. Paranietharan visited it a few days after the disaster. (Photo: N.  Paranietharan)
But then the water kept rising and began coming onto the road. My brother stopped the car. We had just passed the walled compound of an English college, whose front gate was now about 5 meters behind us, so he reversed the car and was going in through the gate just when the water hit us and drove us into the compound. The water caught us and carried us right through the gate and inside for 30 or 40 feet and I said, "Hey, you're going to hit that tree!" But he'd already turned off the engine and we were basically floating by that time.

The grounds inside the compound were hilly, and the car got hung up on a small rise, but by then the water was seeping into the car. We both can swim, and the water wasn't that deep, so we still felt pretty confident. We said, "On the count of three!" and counted "One! Two! Three!"--and the car doors wouldn't open. They were jammed because of the water pressure. That's when my heart started pounding. But then we managed to roll down the windows and jump out. It was waist deep. 

The first time the water came up, it lasted 3 to 5 minutes. Then, I could see some tables and chairs from inside the school getting drained back into the sea, very fast. That's when I realized it was a tsunami--I'd been to Hawaii last June and remembered seeing the warning signs everywhere describing what a tsunami looked like and what to do ("Run Away!").

After the water went back out, I saw some youths in the distance who were down on low ground picking up fish. I yelled to them "Get out! The water will come again!" I don't think any of them were taken. The water then came again, and again it stayed for about 3 to 5 minutes before washing back out.

We were very lucky. For one thing, we did not get hit by the strongest waves. We were traveling along the inner harbor, like here in Baltimore, and that part of the coast is protected by jetties and a small island, so the water was only waist high.

For another thing, much of the compound's walls were still intact, which kept the waves from washing us out to sea. And for another thing, we were lucky that my brother reversed the car when he did. If we had simply stopped and watched, the water would have smashed the car into the compound walls and then taken us back out to sea.

If we had known from the first it was a tsunami, we would have immediately turned off that harbor road and headed inland. But we didn't know and so we just kept riding along until the water was upon us. People who were on foot were standing like spectators along the road, watching the sea just like we were, probably thinking something like, "Oh, the water is coming up! It's nice!"

As the tsunami receded, my brother and I went out to make sure family, relatives and friends were OK. We went on motorcycle along the coastal roads of Trincomalee to check out the situation and to help out people. We saw people gathered in the hilly areas in the interior. They were severely scared and some were crying in distress. Fishing boats and vehicles were strewn about the roads and properties.
 
We both are members of the local Red Cross Society and so joined the rescue and relief operations. Although the government and administrative system took quite a long time to respond to the tsunami, some NGOs, as well as many civilians, had already started to work. Most of the non-affected families were cooking meals for the affected and displaced people, and volunteers were collecting food items, clothes and essentials for the displaced people.

In the Kinniya Hospital, one of the staff who was killed, a nursing officer, was the father of my good friend. Four other staff persons and 60 patients were killed by the tsunami there. I visited this hospital to assist the health specialist of the NECORD Project, an Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded project, with a preliminary assessment. The structure of the hospital was still standing [see photo above] but everything inside was swept away.

Our country has  been under an ethnic war situation for the last 21 years, so people are experienced in doing relief and volunteer work, but the nature of this disaster was different, and even scarier.

On January 5, Dr. Paranietharan had to leave Sri Lanka to begin the trip back to Baltimore and the School.