As the aftermath of the deadly Asian tsunami dragged on, a team of Oklahoma State University professors and graduate students visited a hard-hit Indian district to mark the locations of mass graves and examine how government officials and citizens coped with a disaster that most of us cannot imagine.
Professors Brenda Phillips, David Neal and Tom Wikle, joined graduate research assistants Shireen Hyrapiet and Aswin Subanthore in Chennai, India, the state capital of the Tamil Nadu region and in Nagapattinam, where the tsunami claimed more than 6,000 of the total 10,000 human lives lost in India. The primary purpose was to determine how local authorities and citizens deal with mass casualties.
Lead investigator Phillips, Neal and Hyrapiet are in OSU’s Fire and Emergency Management Program, which produces managers and administrators for the fire services and emergency management organizations.
Wikle and Subanthore are in OSU’s Geography Department. Wikle, who is also associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, used GPS equipment to record the sites of mass graves where the victims were buried.
Neal has studied natural and other disasters for more than 30 years, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Andrew. Both were major disasters, but Neal said the tsunami was an incomparable event.
“You cannot plan for something on that scale,” Neal said. “Nobody does. Most disasters have less than 100 victims, so it is impossible to be prepared for something that big. I think our preliminary finding is that flexibility is the most crucial component in dealing with such disasters. People and organizations have to adjust the plan as they go along. This sounds unusual, but you have to plan to be spontaneous.”
He said Indian officials faced the unimaginable tasks of identifying and burying 10,000 victims within three days after the tsunami. As bodies decomposed, they became harder and harder to identify. Officials took as many photos as possible, then began burying the victims. Most were Hindus, a religion which advocates cremation to dispose of bodies. The sheer number of victims ruled out this option.
Wikle said most of the mass graves were not marked in any way. He described one that had PVC pipe embedded in the ground, not so much as a marker, but a way to allow ventilation into the grave to aid in decomposition of the bodies.
“It’s important to the victims’ families and to future generations that these sites be recorded and available in a permanent archive,” he said.
Subanthore, who is from the region, was charged with interviewing people at all different levels, from regular citizens to top officials. He said a common theme throughout his research was the remarkable resiliency of the Indian people.
“They depend on the ocean for their livelihood and their income, so the survivors got back to work, trying to rebuild their lives,” he said. “They seem to be sustained by a combination of their spiritual beliefs and the fact that their family roots in these areas often go back for centuries. They have a tremendous sense of place, and they look at the ocean as a symbol of the divine. The ocean brought death, but it also brings life.”
Neal agrees, saying that mass disasters do not defeat people. “Societies do not collapse,” he says. “Life goes on because it has to.”
The tsunami project was funded by the National Science Foundation, with additional assistance from the Armenian Church of Calcutta, the OSU Dean of Arts & Sciences and the OSU School of International Studies.
Neal and Wikle hope to find additional funding to return to India and other locations to continue their research. They say the real value of these experiences is the knowledge gained by OSU’s graduate students.
“They learned an incredible amount, and they will be the teachers of the next generations,” Neal said.
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