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Pallone travels to tsunami impacted South Asia (Day 2: Sri Lanka)

January 11, 2005
Blog

Sri Lanka is one of the nations hardest hit by the tsunami. Reports indicate approximately 40,000 people were killed and over 70 percent of the island nation's coastline was impacted.

Today we traveled to the Galle Province of Sri Lanka and met with U.S. Marines and aid workers here on the ground. We visited a tsunami refugee camp where thousands of Sri Lankans who had lost their homes are now sleeping on the floor of a temple.

Senator Corzine, who has joined me on this trip, aptly described the landscape as if a nuclear bomb had gone off along the coastline. The devastation here is complete and total. Much like Thailand, the destruction runs, on average, a mile inland. The areas we visited today were thriving cities, centers of business and commerce that were completely decimated by the waves. Galle City is a huge fishing town and the city was littered with hundreds of fishing boats that had been picked up by the waves and dropped half a mile inland in the middle of homes and streets.

GALLE PROVINCE, SRI LANKA

Today was our first real opportunity to talk directly with people who lived through the tsunami and to hear their stories of survival and loss.

I was heartened to find that most of the people we spoke to were in unbelievably positive spirits. They shared with us the story of how they survived the waves, of the family members they lost. The people here are working to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

I met two young boys in Galle City who were helping U.S. Marines clear debris from a local schoolyard. The boys lost their father, grandmother and sister in the tsunami and yet there they were smiling, working side-by-side with the Marines to rebuild their school.

I met a woman who lost her husband and her home and was coping with the thought of raising her three daughters alone without a way to support them. Women in Sri Lanka generally have a hard time finding jobs. With no son, how is this woman going to be able to feed and support her daughters? Even with all this weighing on her mind, she was still in positive spirits.

We visited a refugee camp outside Hikkaduwa, just north of Galle City, that was caring for thousands of people who had lost their homes. The camp was run out of a local Buddhist monastery and the monks there had organized their grounds to meet the needs of the thousands who have been displaced. The monastery itself has become the shelter, with men, women and children asleep on the floor. Another room has been converted into a make shift clinic where doctors from India treat the sick and wounded. Trucks now pull up outside to deliver food and necessities.

I had the opportunity to hand out food packages to people. Each person expressed to me how truly thankful they were that we were there and how much they appreciated the assistance from our military. I think the sense of community that has been created at the camp has helped them to cope with their losses. By being surrounded by people who shared this terrible experience seemed to help them moved forward as best they can with their lives.

I would like to be able to say that all the people we saw remained positive. Driving through Galle City, we passed many people sitting outside what was once their home, just frozen in grief. I am concerned about the people who arent in the refugee camps, who are facing the grief alone.

THE FUTURE

From what I have seen, it seems the immediate needs of the people are being met. The public health system appears to be able to address the current needs of the Sri Lankan people. Government agencies report that, as of now, there are no outbreaks of disease. People have shelter and food, although temporary. They are truly grateful for the assistance they have received from our government and our military. I can't express the outpouring of support the Marines we met are getting from the local people.

However, the real question is what will happen in the future. People here have lost everything. Every house is gone, every means of shelter is destroyed. Where is the woman I met who lost her husband going to find a job? What will happen to the hundreds of fisherman who have lost their boats? People can't sleep on the floor of a monastery forever.

The true test of this tragedy will be long term. Rebuilding lives and homes. Restarting the economy and finding new means of employment for men and women. For now, the people of Sri Lanka are moving forward.