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Pallone travels to tsunami impacted South Asia (Day 1: Thailand)

January 10, 2005
Blog

Today was our first opportunity to tour some of the areas hit by the tsunami. Like everyone, I have been watching television coverage of the disaster, but nothing prepared me for what I saw.

KHAO LAK, THAILAND

We traveled to a resort area just north of Phuket on the southern coast of Thailand, called Khao Lak. Khao Lak is a popular resort area, with hotels built up along the beach and nestled into the side of a mountain that lies about a mile inland.

When Khao Lak was struck by the tsunami, 30-foot waves destroyed beachside resorts and homes. The floodwaters subsided only when the water reached the base of the mountain. The devastation was total and left few structures, those buildings that survived are completely uninhabitable. At one point, we came along a Thai naval ship that had been deposited by floodwaters at the base of the mountain, killing many of the sailors onboard.

In Khao Lak, we were taken to a missing persons station where photos of the dead are posted for families to identify. Families were forced to walk through the center and match memories of their loved ones with the horrific photos posted on the walls.

I am sad to report that many survivors in Khao Lak have given up their search for their family members. The center was empty when we arrived, save a few western reporters. Recovery officials told us that most of the dead have been found, although recovery efforts continue. Four more bodies were found in the short time we were there.

One of the most remarkable aspects of our visit to Thailand has been the constant presence of the U.S. military and the truly positive response they have received. Back home we have heard of the need for relief funds, but they also need large construction equipment to move wreckage and begin the rebuilding process. Our military personnel have provided these much needed resources and are being heralded as heroes in many of these communities. I, along with every American, am proud of our men and women in uniform and want to thank them for the work they are doing to help the Thai people.

EARLY WARNING SYSTEM

Touring the beaches of Khao Lak, I was reminded of the many similarities between the Thai coast and the Jersey shore. Both are coastal, resort communities that rely heavily on their tourism industry. Both have a wealth of coastal natural resources and support a large fishing community.

When I thought of the similarities, I asked myself what would happen if a tsunami hit our shoreline? Would New Jersey be any better prepared than Thailand?

The one thing that has become very apparent in the aftermath of this tragedy is the need for a global early warning system. New Jersey and the eastern coast of the United States, like Thailand and the Indian Ocean, currently have no early warning system in place for tsunamis. I am working with my colleagues in Congress to introduce legislation to create this system, a program that costs surprisingly little money (only $3 million to implement the system in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico).

In a meeting this morning with Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, he reiterated the need. The Thai government is hosting a conference on the early warning system at the end of the month with other South Asian nations. All nations involved seem eager to take the lead and eager to implement the system, all they need is the necessary technology from the United States to begin construction.

COASTAL DEVASTATION: Coastal Resources and Fisheries

During our tour, I was also struck by the total destruction of Thailand's fishing industry. As a strong advocate of recreational and commercial fishing in Congress, I can understand what a devastating blow a disaster of this magnitude can have on people who rely so heavily on the sea.

I have heard of only a few efforts in the U.S. to reach out to fishing communities in South Asia to help with the rebuilding process. I am looking start an effort in our state to link our fishing communities with those in South Asia to give them the tools they will need to get back on their feet.

We have one of the largest recreation fishing communities in the nation and I know there are many caring people back home who are looking for a way to help.