of Americans watched as the Dec. 26 tsunami obliterated south Asia's coastal
belts. But for Ganesan "Ravi" Ravishanker, the event was far more personal.
of Technology Support Services and adjunct associate professor of chemistry,
is a Sri Lanka native and attended college in southern India where the tidal
waves battered both shorelines for a half-mile inland.
“Those are both places
where I have spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years and have vivid
memories of,” Ravishanker
said. “Most of my extended family members live in these two countries.”
The tsunami, triggered
by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Indonesia, killed more than 170,000 people
as it crashed the shores of 10 countries around the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka
and Indonesia received the hardest hits.
Ravishanker, who lost
his parents as a young child, grew up with his aunt, uncle, sister and 11
cousins in the country’s capital, Colombo. Three of these cousins are
raising families in Sri Lanka and the rest moved to southern India.
“I was just getting
back from vacation and I was still in a relaxing vacation mode, when they
started flashing news about the tsunami damage on TV,” he said. “I
immediately thought about my family. Many of them were living in area close
to the coast.”
Relatives in Tamil Nadu,
India, immediately e-mailed
Ravishanker in America and let him
know they were OK. His relatives in Sri Lanka, however, were still
unaccounted for. Although his relatives lived inland in Kandy, he feared
they may be traveling on a train that was derailed by the tsunami.
“All I could do is sit,
watch and wait,” he said.
Sri Lanka, a
pear-shaped island four times larger than the state of Connecticut, is
located 18 miles southeast of India. With no communications available to his
homeland, he waited as the death toll climbed to 30,000. The missing
count hovered at 5,600. More than 200,000 families were displaced by the
“The Sri Lanka that I
remember, that I grew up in, was one of the most enjoyable places. It was
surrounded by the ocean, there were beaches, a perfect climate and the
people were very friendly. It was a great place,” he said. “It was like
Via Indian television
channels, Ravishanker watched debris of fishermen’s wood shacks envelop the
once pristine, palm-lined beaches. Disfigured bodies “in all forms and
shapes” piled up near landmarks all recognizable to the Sri Lanka native.
heart-wrenching to watch,” he said. “I was thinking of my family, but also
these poor children affected by this disaster. What’s so sad is that the
first wave came in and pushed all these fish up on shore, and all the
fishermen told their kids to come out and see and play with the fish. Little
did they know that a bigger wave was coming to eat them all up.”
On Dec. 30, Ravishanker
finally heard from his Sri Lankan relatives. Everyone was alive. With his
family all accounted for, Ravishanker immediately pursued ways to help the
victims of the disaster.
Rescue efforts are
somewhat hampered by an ongoing civil war in the country between the
Sinhalese and Tamil Tigers. Pockets of the northern and eastern areas are
heavily mined. A physical presence of rescue workers in these areas carries
a certain amount of danger.
Lankan government has urged donor nations to donate $15.6 billion to rebuild
tsunami-affected parts of the country, but
Ravishanker was advised to hold off and carefully explore more long
lasting avenues to help those affected. He’s considering funding an orphaned
child’s education for life. His brother-in-law, Shankar, is working with
these orphaned children directly back in Chennai, India.
“I take great pride in
my brother-in-law for doing this, and I think the outpouring of local
support is a great thing to see. People are setting aside their religious
differences and caste barriers are vanishing,” he said. “I can’t imagine
people doing this 20 years ago. People are already setting up shops and
makeshift schools. Recovery have been remarkable.”