I will not soon forget the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami that caught the world off guard a day after Christmas in 2004. A violent 9.0 earthquake in the depths of the sea quickly gave rise to fifty-foot waves that thrust their way onto the shores of eleven unsuspecting countries. In a single day, over one hundred and fifty thousand people died, and millions more lost their homes and families. The tsunami was arguably the most disastrous in recorded history.
In those days, I was working as the Director of Financial Services for Mission of Mercy, a U.S. based non-profit. The organization supported two hundred and fifty projects in nineteen countries, providing holistic support to disadvantaged children. On December 26th, the moment that news of the tsunami hit American shores, my colleagues and I rushed to the office for an emergency meeting. We sat together for hours, stunned and heartbroken as we discovered the extent of the tragedy in the Southeast. In Sri Lanka, we operated thirty-seven projects, sponsoring over two thousand children. Many of these children were now dead:
- In Lunugamwehera, twenty of our children had died.
- In Galle, thirteen had died.
- In Kalawnchikudy, fourteen had died.
- In Chenkalady, thirteen had died.
- In Manawa and Tissamaharam, we could not determine our losses because our projects were uncommunicative due to the destruction.
- In Valachenai, fifteen had died.
- In Batticaloa, nine had died.
- In Hambantota, twenty-two had died.
In a single day, over one hundred children enrolled in our projects had died.
For us, it was not about numbers. We knew the names and faces of each child. It was hard to believe I would never see little Kumar again. Shanti, the girl with the two short pigtails, would never again come running to meet me.
And what of the children who had survived without their parents? They had nowhere to live and no one to whom they could turn.
Clearly, our team had a large task ahead of us. The tsunami had not undermined our resolve to continue the work. On the contrary, it awakened our desire to do even more.
The day following the disaster, we received a call from the Calcutta hospital where I served as Board Member. The hospital had a great reputation in India for its plethora of services to the local poor boasting some of the best doctors and nurses in Calcutta. Occasionally, it treated patients affected by flood and drought disasters in the city, but never had it responded to disaster situations from afar. “We want to take an extra step on behalf of those affected by the tsunami and send a medical team to Sri Lanka,” they informed me. I appreciated their resolve and agreed to help the team fundraise for travel expenses.
A church in Canada was one of the first to pledge support with a generous offer of funds. They contacted me on a Saturday, requesting that I send them a Power Point depicting the disaster which they could present to their church members the following morning. That evening, I quickly assembled the presentation using stock photos of past tsunamis that demonstrated the devastation they can cause.
Saturday passed, as did Sunday. On Monday morning, I returned to my office to an E-mail from the church. The message was not positive. The church had viewed the Power Point and noticed that one of the photos showed a wave hitting China. “Where are the photos from Sri Lanka?” they queried. “We were expecting to see the effects of the current tsunami on Sri Lanka’s shores.”
I saw instantly how we had misunderstood one other. “The photos were meant to represent tsunamis in general,” I replied. “In the few hours’ time that I had on Saturday, I was unable to take photos from the field and upload them to the Power Point. I apologize that this was not what you expected.”
In the end, the church took great offense by what they felt was a lack of integrity and subsequently withdrew their support for the medical team. For me this became a painful reality check arising from a lack of understanding between donor expectations and the time it took to gather photographs from the field.
In a week’s time, we still managed to raise the funds required to send a team of thirteen doctors and nurses to Sri Lanka. No sooner had they arrived in shore-torn Sri Lanka that one of the doctors had a near nervous breakdown. The death and destruction littering the beaches proved too harsh a reality for her. It didn’t matter how much experience she had inside hospital walls; she lacked the special training and psychological preparedness for natural disasters of this magnitude.
The remaining team members carried on with their work locating men, women, and children needing medical treatment. As they walked from village to village, they noticed large heaps of unopened plastic water bottles littering the sides of the road. “Why aren’t these being used by the victims? They need fresh water, yet the bottles have been cast aside,” they observed. The team later learned that a major U.S. non-profit had taken donated funds and purchased thousands of these bottles from an American superstore, only to spend more donated funds to ship the bottles to the disaster site. The tsunami had done so much damage to the roads and byways that the non-profit’s staff and volunteers could not figure out how to transport the water to the areas that needed it. While they could have used the thousands of five-dollar donations to build some sort of water supply unit in hard-to-reach villages, instead thousands of water bottles became unused mountains of plastic inaccessible to victims and hazardous to the environment.