Friday, December 31, 2004

Going to Sri Lanka

Eventually, our website work was renamed as Internet Resource Centers by Mano Philips and we issued a media release about it. The task that we had take on was expansive and our resources were meager. We did not plan as to how to get it done but we just worked hard at it.

We also realized that we needed to help get funds to the people who were helping. So initially we had a focus on the relief efforts and we directed traffic to groups that were already set up.

On the 29th, I decided to go to Sri Lanka and so I booked a flight out on January 2nd. The objectives were to do what I could with relief, to identify groups that were actually undertaking work, and then also to set up offices to help with disseminating information from the Internet to the relief operations and getting information from the relief workers to the websites.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Building a Team via the Internet

I had been also exchanging emails desperately and in two of my friends - Neil Devadasan and Vidhura Ralapanawe - I found common cause - they responded and together we expanded the website after moving it to ldeo to help responders throwing out our data, our work, published and unpublished and links to raise funds for the victims. We believed that it would be useful.

Having been studying the environmental side and the science and technology infrastructure in Sri Lanka for two decades. I know well about how that country deals with disasters. I had just completed a project on disaster risk identification and a proposal to do early warning systems. I have been studying how scientific information gets used in the climate arena to meet societal needs for five years now.

We worked feverishly - all three of us working sometimes till 4 am - essentially until we could no longer function - exchanging emails often - from our locations in Indianopolis, Poughkeepsie, and Palisades. We went public with the websites in a few days.

We also decided to brand the websites with recoverlanka and geolanka - the former to capture our wish and the content and the latter to reflect the interactive tools that Neil had developed for mapping. Later he added on database tools for people so that we can make all of the emails that were flying around requesting assistance organized into a database.

We were soon joined by many - Mano Philips from Toronto - who brought in a great wealth of experience and good judgement and took on an extraordinary share of the work including making dossiers for distribution and developing a dialogue on reconstruction - Ruvini Perera dealt with GIS work to punishing schedules - Geetha Selvendran and Jayantha Obeyesekera took over the disaster response on the water management side - my IRI colleagues, Anji, Ale, Brad, Ousmane, Emily kept up a watch on the weather that was so critical in the relief operations.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Responding to December 26th - the first days

We inure ourself to agony to go on living.

I learnt to do that in the 1980's in Sri Lanka, as the civil war started little by little - you cannot carry all the the emotions, a few dead, then a dozen, libraries burnt, then a hundred killed in a bombing, in a landmine, a hijacking and so on.

We learn to put out such numbers hundreds, even thousands dead - we dealt with it - 60,000 they say is the cumulative toll of deaths in one of the two civil wars.

But its impacts sneaks upoun you when you listed to tales of torture (or do you call it abuse), sometime the cruelty that your friends are capable of or those you know are killed. You get blindsided by details. The killing of the judge of our drama in University - tortured and dumped into the western sea by helicopter. That shy and gentle guy who taught me to swim the sea in Trincomalee - because he dashed out of cover to save a child in the middle of crossfire leaving all his six feet many inches exposed - Sri Lanka's champion marksman leaving aside his guns to save a child. The eighteen torsos arranged like petals of a flower around the Universities pond - the pond was a dedication in a gentler time of the national University to that aesthete of an architect who bridged time and cultures and set a tone for the place from the beginning.

So I was slow on 9-11 to understand it all - it took me many hours - and during that time, we were all frantic just to get in touch with those close to the World Trade Center - and the absence of it in the horizon provoked a meditation for my commute to work. Perhaps it was best to grieve all at once.

So when the numbers of the dead from 12-26 started coming in at first, several hundred dead the first day, I was still functional and it was in this mode that I put together a website, trying to understand what this disaster was all about.

I was getting reports from home of people who were visiting the worst hit Eastern coast and also the north-eastern and southern coasts of the human cost.

The website that I put together in about 10 hours was picked up immediately. I had passed it on to scientists in Sri Lanka who obviously still had the job of trying to calm people. In calling home, people were not even sure that the whole island was going to fall apart in the first few days.

It was appreciated by disaster responders in Sri Lanka and Maldives in the first few days. Several of the scientists used it to provide accurate information that helped calm people over TV stations and in the media. Later when I visited Sri Lanka, I was told of its use in many instances.

It was picked up by the Earth Institute Website and then by many across the world and it was even highlighted on New York TV news. The Sri Lankan websites Lankatown and Lankapage helped propagate its contents.

In the third and fourth days afterwards, I just went numb. Even I could not deal with the scale as the death toll went about 7,000 and it was still climbing. There was so much that I wanted to say and do, but could not. I just scanned the world for all the news of Sri Lanka. And there was grim news from every side.