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AMBALANGODA: Distance from beach sealed fates

 

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

By Tim Johnson, Knight Ridder | January 2, 2005

AMBALANGODA, Sri Lanka -- Asia's tsunami disaster dealt sharply different fates to those along the coasts, depending on how far they lived from the shore.

Those living at the ocean's edge invariably suffered devastation. Neighbors just a block or two back sometimes went unscathed.

This town on Sri Lanka's southeast coast was a case in point. On one side of a beach road, houses were smashed to their foundations. Shattered boats littered the beach. Fishing nets tangled the upper fronds of palm trees. Lives lay in tragedy and destitution.

But across the street and up a knoll, neighbors hardly have seen their lives disrupted. Their homes did not even get flooded.

For the neighboring Thomson and the Kahingala families, fate could hardly have taken sharper turns on Dec. 26, when a massive undersea earthquake off Sumatra sent killer surges across the Indian Ocean.

Before that day, P. W. Thomson Jr. earned his living as a fisherman and a skin diver for lobster and octopus. He owned a boat, and lived with his wife and son in a bright yellow three-room home.

Thomson recounted the morning of the devastation as emotion-laden scenes in a short drama.

First there was fear, when a small initial surge drove water 2 feet deep into his home and threw his catamaran against beachfront palm trees. Then minutes later there was excitement, as the water receded nearly 400 yards out to sea, exposing sea life. Thomson and other awed villagers ran to an island several hundred yards offshore to gather exposed lobster.

Then 15 minutes later came utter terror. A second, higher wall of water came roaring in from the sea. Thomson had gathered two lobsters but dropped them to dash toward the knoll. Water caught him up to the waist, but he managed to reach dry land.

Swirling sea water covered his house. His catamaran splintered. His wife and 3-year-old son had reached high ground, too, but had salvaged nothing.

Only part of a wall remains standing. The rest is shattered concrete littered with debris and old clothing. Thomson made a brief inventory of what the house contained: ''It had a fridge, TV, cassettes, washing machine, electric heater, blender."

''I had 4,000 or 5,000 rupees in the cupboard. I had gold [chains]. My wife had gold [jewelry]," Thomson said. The entire contents of the house, as well as personal photos, IDs, and bank records, were swept away.

Up a road 100 yards from the Thomson house, Renuka Kahingala stepped out on the porch of her trim home and acknowledged that her fate was far different than Thomson's.

''The water didn't reach here. We were lucky. We didn't have any trouble," she said.

A fruit and vegetable vendor, Kahingala enjoyed roughly the same standard of living as Thomson before the tsunamis.

She offered no special reflection on her now destitute shoreline neighbors, but her 18-year-old son offered little sympathy.

''The government has advised them that if they live there, be very careful," said the son, Lahiru Dilshan.

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.
 

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka