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Indian Ocean tsunami retrospective: Five years later

January 30, 2010
photo - Pictures drawn by children at the Samudra Sri orphanage in Colombo, Sri Lanka served as windows into the eyes of newly orphaned children who watched family members wash away. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
Pictures drawn by children at the Samudra Sri orphanage in Colombo, Sri Lanka served as windows into the eyes of newly orphaned children who watched family members wash away. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

The entire earth wobbled on its axis.

The waves sped to shore at the speed of a commercial jet.

Some 230,000 people died in moments.

It’s been five years since an earthquake deep in the Indian Ocean spawned one of the worst natural disasters ever known, a tsunami that crashed ashore in 14 countries. The Dec. 26, 2004, quake was one of the strongest in recorded history.

The staggering death toll was not rivaled until the recent earthquake in Haiti. And like the current relief effort underway in Port-au-Prince, the world and Colorado Springs responded in force.

The Gazette sent a reporter and photographer to Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit nations, in late January 2005 to tell the story of relief efforts by Colorado Springs’ groups and others just one month after the tsunami struck.

Today, those organizations and people remain profoundly changed.

As the effort to rebuild Haiti begins, the tsunami provides a glimpse of what can happen once rubble is cleared and the dead are buried. It shows that people who walk into chaos to help strangers seldom emerge the same.

Global Action

Last month Lars Dunberg, president of Colorado Springs-based Global Action, was passing out wool blankets to impoverished children in the Himalayas. Thousands die each winter there, he said in a phone interview from India, and a $5 blanket can save a life.

It’s just one of many humanitarian projects for the Colorado Springs nonprofit — all of them a result of the tsunami.

Before the disaster, Global Action’s purpose was to train Christians in developing nations like Sri Lanka to become ministers and start churches.

Those programs were put aside for relief work after the tsunami. Two Sri Lankan workers were killed and others lost friends and family, but the nonprofit’s survivors became among the first on scene to provide help.

With roots in the country, the Colorado Springs organization was able to quickly get supplies and services to victims.

“We learned a lot of lessons,” said Dunberg, who founded Global Action in 1998. “We learned how to mobilize people.”

By the time The Gazette team arrived, in late January 2005, workers were providing food, school supplies, and medical equipment alongside Buddhist monks. In a country where religious tensions run high and at times spark violence, Global Action remains on good terms with its non-Christian counterparts in part because of partnerships forged during disaster relief.

Global Action eventually started training pastors again, but it never quit doing relief work. Today’s mission, Dunberg said, “is a big mix of both.”

In the years since the tsunami, the group has stocked Sri Lankan hospitals with beds, X-ray machines, dialysis machines and other equipment. It donated three fully equipped ambulances. It’s cut overhead — \

Dunberg works from home to save money spent on an office — to put more money into simple but effective relief, such as the blankets.

Most recently, Global Action provided tents and cook stoves for thousands of refugees uprooted in the upheaval after the recent end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

Global Action provided relief work after Hurricane Katrina as well.

“Guerilla humanitarianism”

They were a group of strangers who met up at the airport without a desire to help and no plan as to how.

They shared a rental van and headed south when they came across a battered roadside village. Peraliya, on Sri Lanka’s western shore, was littered with bodies and rubble.

A passenger train here had been tossed from the rails like a toy set, killing between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Bodies hung from trees.

It seemed as good a place as any to start.

Telluride resident Bruce French, a chef to rock stars, had come here with a few months to spare before a scheduled summer tour with Pearl Jam. Alison Thompson, a New York City nurse, and her boyfriend, Oscar Gubernati, had cashed in frequent flier miles and planned to stay for a few weeks. A pair of others joined along the way.

Five years later, French has made eight trips to the island. Thompson’s plan to stay two weeks turned into about two years. Both are friends, and they remain actively involved today in Sri Lanka’s rebuilding effort.

“I hadn’t really planned on going back,” French said recently. “It just sort of worked out that way.”

He has returned over the years to spearhead projects that would provide some long-term relief. He’s bought brick-making machines to help with rebuilding homes, and he’s helped start new businesses for locals such as bakeries and spice mills.

He accompanied some puppeteers on a goodwill mission to the refugee camps following the end of the civil war.

French, who recently finished touring as a chef for U2, has a name for the work he and others did in Peraliya without the benefit of a major aid organization: “guerilla humanitarianism.”

“The things I felt I could offer were compassion and sharing and some of the logistical skills I have from my touring gigs,” he said. “One of our volunteers said, ‘You wouldn’t throw a drowning man a hundred dollar bill, you’d offer your hand.’”

Large international aid groups discourage people from going into disaster zones alone and unprepared, arguing that they can be in the way and inadvertently do more harm than good.

French and Thompson found the opposite to be true. Many of the large organizations left after the disaster disappeared from the news, they said, while they were able to help people for years to come, and felt they met needs overlooked by others.

Thompson, whose first volunteer experience was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, stayed for about two years, helping to launch a tsunami warning system along the island’s west coast.

She continues to volunteer her time with the project, in hopes of giving people a little comfort that if such an event ever occurs again, they will know in time to seek higher ground.

French and Thompson have become evangelists for grass-roots volunteerism.

Thompson, who carried a camcorder with her during their time in Peraliya, produced a documentary film, “The Third Wave,” that’s been featured at festivals including Cannes and Tribeca.

The film, on the theme of volunteering, caught the eye of Sean Penn. Thompson has since been working with Penn on another film about volunteerism in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she said.

French said their work recently earned a plug from Bono during U2’s tour, and he was invited to give a talk at Princeton University and was featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Volunteering, Thompson said, is “so much more important than all the stupid little things we do in our lives.” She added, “We can’t just all sit around waiting for the governments to rescue us.”

Tsunami Orphans

The pictures were haunting. Crayola drawings of crudely drawn people and trees carried away in blue scribbles. They served as windows into the eyes of newly orphaned children who watched family members wash away.

The Samudra Sri Leadership Academy, an orphanage near the capital of Colombo, was spared by the tsunami, although water reached its back steps.

Soon, the orphanage, which is helped financially by Colorado Springs-based Mission of Mercy, received dozens of new arrivals.

Today, it and a second orphanage built nearby, Kalapuwa Sri, are home to 246 children orphaned by the tsunami.

Most of the children orphaned by the tsunami are doing well, said Adam Salmon, who runs the organization that cares for them, Child Empowerment International.

Sathis, a 5-year-old orphaned by the tsunami whose photo ran in The Gazette, is making good grades and is well-adjusted to his new home, Salmon said.

Salmon doesn’t call the girls’ and boys’ homes orphanages, but academies. They are run like boarding schools, he said.

A few children remain traumatized, exhibiting behavior problems and performing poorly in school, he said, but most have found security and a reason to smile again.

The oldest child is 16, so Salmon said his organization’s success has not yet been measured.

“Our story will be written after these kids go on and make changes in this country and make changes in their own lives,” he said.

Child Empowerment, formerly known as Asiana Education Development, was hit hard in the disaster. Seven schools were destroyed and two others damaged, and 16 children sponsored by the organization were killed.
Salmon spent the days immediately after the disaster retrieving bodies from the water.

The organization has thrived in the years since, Salmon said. All schools have been rebuilt or repaired, and the boy’s orphanage was later built. Mission of Mercy contributed more than $2 million to that project, Salmon said.

The exposure the organization gained after the disaster led to a robust internship program in which a dozen to three dozen college students volunteer each year.

The group has expanded to Uganda, and in the next few months it plans to begin work in Haiti, Salmon said.

Before the tsunami, the nonprofit agency saw its share of traumatized children, but today helping children who’ve suffered extreme trauma, either through the tsunami, war or other tragedies, has become its focus. Salmon earned a doctoral degree in the subject following the tsunami.

“We’ve decided our strength, our experience, and our training is dealing with children in extreme traumatized backgrounds. We just kind of embrace it and say, ‘hey, that’s what we do.’”

From Sri Lanka to Haiti

What began in Sri Lanka five years ago may very well continue in Haiti. Global Action is collecting money for the current disaster relief effort, according to its Web site, and Salmon said Child Empowerment was already in talks to begin work there before the earthquake.

Several months from now, when long-term rebuilding efforts begin, Salmon expects to start a program there, perhaps schools or an orphanage similar to Samudra Sri.

Both French and Thompson talked in the days after the quake struck about their preliminary plans to get to Port-au-Prince, this time as veteran volunteers with an aim to help those who might otherwise fall through the cracks. And this time with a knowledge of what time spent now can amount to later.

“In the end, Thompson said, “there were a lot of great people coming together from every nation of the world.”


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