Four months ago, writer and journalist Holly Michael, a dear friend, shared the story of her visit to South India after the 2004 tsunami. This past November, Holly and her husband, Reverend Leo Michael, a native of India, returned to follow-up on the progress there and record the survivors’ stories. The trip took a dangerous turn when Reverend Michael fell gravely ill.
Here is part two of Holly’s story, which she chronicled in a wonderful book titled Tsunami 2004 — Still Wading through Waves of Hope:
“Send us to the most devastated, remote villages where no one else has gone.”
Those were my husband’s words, ten years ago, in South India, days after the 2004 tsunami.
The day after Christmas, an earthquake near the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, caused a tsunami that had slammed the southern peninsular coast of India.
Immediately, my husband, Reverend Leo Michael, a native of South India was contacted by the media. Just a few years earlier, he had lived and worked in orphanages in the affected coastal region, where “Houses made of mud walls and thatched coconut leaf roofs would be decimated.”
Men would have been out fishing. Wives would be waiting for their husbands return to take the fish to market. Children would have been sleeping or playing along the seashore.
My husband told the reporter he would begin a fundraiser. When disaster strikes beyond America’s shores, our country’s generosity shines bright. Unfortunately, sometimes funds collected end up in big pots with many dipping ladles for salaries and all sorts of miscellaneous expenses.
Or worse, corrupt hands snatch the money, and victims get nothing.
So, like a sweeping wave, news of the tsunami fundraiser spread. Reverend Leo Michael became the ideal vehicle to collect, then ferry aid across the sea. He knew the area, spoke the native language, and had a counseling degree.
He made daily newspaper headlines. His face became a constant on the evening news. He even landed an interview on the Tony Snow’s national radio show, where he promised, “I will dance if it will help raise funds.”
Our point of contact in Nahapattinam, the worst hit area, was Father Xavier. He reported more than a hundred bodies were recovered between his church and the sea, just a few hundred feet apart. The tsunami had roared through the graveyard across the road and unearthed the dead and floated them onto the church grounds that Sunday morning.
From the larger Nagapattinam district, we were sent to remote villages where no one else had gone—literally impassable areas.
My book, Tsunami 2004 – Still Wading through Waves of Hope chronicles stories about the villages and the people that we helped during those days—especially the widows and orphans.
The last part of the book is about the “now,” — about what happened ten years later, when we returned. Ten years ago, one of the ways we helped was by setting up Bank CDs in the orphan’s names so that in ten years, as adults, the money would have multiplied.
We returned to Nagapattinam to the same villages and met the children, now adults. We also visited the bank and made sure all the tsunami-affected children would get their CDs with no hassles.
Some of the testimonies were great victories, but some were stories of despair as young women in this part of India are married off based on their dowry value and women’s rights is not even a concept.
Here’s a sample of one of the happy “then and now” stories:
“I’m Sharmila.” The girl tugged on the edge of her dupatta, then looked up. Dark eyes, pooled with tears, stared at me through my camera lens.
My husband took a step closer and spoke with her in Tamil.
He glanced toward me. “She wants to continue. I’ll translate.”
I lowered my camera and listened to her story.
“I was home alone, working on my science assignment, when I heard a lady crying about water coming. I ran outside and she shoved a child in my arms. ‘Run! As far and fast as you can!’
“Holding tightly to the child, I ran, but within seconds, water roared at me. Two people floated past us along with other rubbish. They banged against poles. Water surrounded us, but I held onto the child and climbed on top of a small house, watching the horrible scene.
“A whole house left its foundation and floated away. Screaming shouts came from the seashore. The water came and receded three times.”
Sharmila took a deep breath. “My father returned, but a pole had cut through his thigh and slashed his eyes, too. He is blind. I lost my mom. I don’t know how I will go on.” Her voice cracked. “She was my whole world.”
The sweet child, near the same age as my daughter, sobbed into her dupatta. My three kids were spending the remainder of their Christmas vacation with their father. What if I didn’t return home? What would they do?
I wanted to go home and take Sharmila with me. I wiped away tears. My heart ached for this motherless child.
My husband had said that Indian children weren’t accustomed to hugs, especially from strangers, but I rushed to Sharmila and gave her a big old American mom hug. She buried her head in my shoulder and I stroked her hair, praying God would help her.
Ten years later, November 2014
Upon our arrival in Nagapattinam, Mr. Rethinam—our excellent record keeper—invited his past students to his home for our interview.
Throughout the day, the twenty-something-year-old adults entered into Mr. Rethinam’s courtyard and knocked on the large carved wooden door of his home, a two-story modest dwelling on a clean, quiet street.
They took their shoes off before stepping onto the light-colored marble floors. Smiles spread to their faces upon meeting their old headmaster and former classmates.
I couldn’t remember all of the faces I’d met ten years earlier, but I recognized Sharmila the moment she stepped into the house. I rushed to hug her, then held her at arm’s length. “Do you remember me?”
She nodded, her eyes growing moist. “I wanted you to be my mom that day.” She dabbed her eyes with the corner of her saree. “I rode sixty-five kilometers on a bus to meet you again.”
I motioned her to sit beside me on the couch. “What happened to you and your family after the tsunami?”
“My father was hospitalized. He was blind and had a badly infected leg. I didn’t see him for three months. My brothers and I took asylum in a temple, but were later moved to a college campus where we stayed for a week. From there we were housed for two weeks in a girls’ school.”
That same scared girl tugging on her dupatta, had grown into a graceful, confident young woman, recalling her painful past with her head held high. She wore a beautiful, blue, jeweled saree.
“How did you overcome those difficult days?”
“Thoughts of my mom gave me strength. She will always be with me, whether I am alive or dead.”
I put my hand over hers. “How is your life now?”
“It was very difficult for a long time, but now I’m okay. I’m happy. I’m married and have a son.” She smiled at a tall man standing near the doorway, holding a toddler. “I am very grateful to God. He has given me a good life.”
At the end of our trip, the story took a new turn. Returning to the city on a twelve-hour bus ride, my husband’s fever spiked. He’d been fighting a slight fever all day. His sister had died from Dengue fever two years earlier, bitten by an infected mosquito. Given our mosquito bites, Dengue fever crossed my mind, but I assumed it had been ruled out with the visit to the doctor in Nagapattinam.
On the bus, I shoved fever reducers in his mouth and tried to force him to drink more water. He grew nearly lethargic as the miles rolled on.
Finally, we got to the city. With a 103-degree temperature and parched lips, he repeatedly complained of thirst as I helped him to the emergency room. For days in an Indian hospital, unable to communicate with the nurses, I watched my husband’s condition deteriorate. But the story ends on a happy note for us.
Tsunami 2004 – Still Wading through Waves of Hope shows how my husband miraculously returned from a multi-organ failure and a surprising visit after a desperate Facebook message.
photos courtesy: Holly Michael.