There was no warning at all. One minute, everything was calm as Dr. Sarath De Alwis and his family spent the day in a coastal village just outside the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. The next minute, it was pandemonium.
‘People were panicking and running in the street helter skelter. Nobody knew what was happening. It was totally out of the blue.’
Sarath and his wife Rashantha and their 12-year-old son Sacha watched as water rose out of nowhere during the devastating 26 Dec. Asian tsunami that killed some 150,000 people in 11 countries.
The long-time Cayman residents said the devastation to their native country was beyond belief.
‘It reminded me of Mariner’s Cove after the hurricane. There was nothing left. Everything was flattened,’ said Sarath, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Chrissie Tomlinson Memorial Hospital.
‘One day, it was like heaven, the next day it was Hiroshima. That’s how they described it.’
The southern and eastern coastlines of Sri Lanka were ravaged by the wave, with homes, crops and fishing boats all destroyed. Apart from Indonesia, more people have died in Sri Lanka as a result of the tsunami than anywhere else. The death toll stands at more than 30,000. Thousands more are missing.
‘People witnessed queues of children just being washed away and they couldn’t do anything. We don’t know how many people died.’
River re-routed wave
Rashantha said it was sheer luck that spared their lives. They were staying in her father’s home in Kalutara, a coastal community about 30 miles south of Colombo. The town is only 150 yards from the sea but is separated by a large river.
‘The river took the brunt of the tsunami. When it came, it went into the river and the water went upstream and flooded the areas on either side of it.’
The water came close to their home but didn’t flood it. The sudden rise in water – the sky was clear blue and there had been no rain – caused panic in the town.
‘People were screaming and running all over, saying, why is the river overflowing? There’s no rain! It was absolute chaos.’
They didn’t learn until much later what had happened. It’s something that deeply troubles Sarath – why was there no warning after the huge earthquake off of Indonesia that triggered the tsunamis?
‘It would’ve taken one phone call. The lessons we learn from this is what is important. We have to have new warning systems and inter-country communication better than this.’
The De Alwis family traveled to Sri Lanka for the funeral of Rashantha’s father, arriving just days before the tsunami struck.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Rashantha had just been to Sri Lanka, where Sacha attends boarding school in Colombo. They were both on their way home to Cayman to spend the holidays, with Sarath waiting to meet them in Miami. When they arrived, Rashantha learned of her father’s death.
‘We had to do a U-turn. As you can imagine, when we landed in Sri Lanka we were not in best frames of mind with the fatigue of travel and my Dad passing away. That was quite hard.’
Four days later, the tsunami hit. They stayed there for 10 days before returning to Grand Cayman.
While the river helped protect the village, Rashantha says the surrounding area was hit hard. More than 30,000 people live in the district.
‘The area beyond my Dad’s town was very badly devastated. A lot of people died. We don’t know how many.’
Sarath and Rashantha feel fortunate they escaped the devastation of the tsunami and that members of their immediate family also came through it unscathed.
‘We were lucky but my first cousin wasn’t,’ noted Sarath. ‘He and his entire family died.’
Sarath’s cousin had been holidaying in a popular tourist spot on the coast when the wave hit. It’s a place Sarath and his family had visited just the year before.
‘I knew that if a 30-foot wave came, they would be like sitting ducks. There were about 150 guests at the hotel. Only a few bodies were found.’
The tsunami left thousands homeless. Rashantha said it’s heartbreaking to see villagers left without homes or boats to fish.
‘The sad thing for me as a Sri Lankan is all these people not only lost their livelihood but their way of life. That’s all they knew.’
After picking up the pieces from Hurricane Ivan, Sarath and Rashantha are now doing what they can to help families in Sri Lanka rebuild their lives. They’ve sent clothing, drugs and other medical supplies and are working on helping schools devastated by the disaster re-open.
Sarath said adopting a school or village, for instance, would go a long way in helping those who have lost everything start again.
Rashantha, a lawyer like her father, returned to Kalutara this week to lend her support.
She said her father, a prominent lawyer who was mayor of the town for 15 years, would have been the first to respond in helping his country recover.
‘I can’t imagine him not being involved.’
Rashantha said the tragedy is enormous but the spirit of the people remains strong.
‘The great thing about the Sri Lankan people is their resilience. They haven’t lost hope.’