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 Post subject: Kentuckians rebuild homes lost in tsunami
 Post Posted: Sun Jan 15, 2006 5:44 pm 
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Kentuckians rebuild homes lost in tsunami

@ By Beverly Fortune/ Posted on Tue, Jan. 03, 2006
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER

Edward Todd traveled to Sri Lanka in March with volunteers from the Lexington chapter of Habitat for Humanity to rebuild houses destroyed by last year's tsunami. The devastation overwhelmed him.

"You'd have to be mighty hard-hearted not to want to help," said Todd, a retired local cardiac surgeon.

"I came back feeling, for sure, more appreciative of what I had, and a little guilty," he said. "You see people who have nothing. It's hard to imagine living there like that, and yet they smile every day. They don't complain. You say to yourself, I wish I had more time to give."

When Habitat for Humanity International volunteered to help on a huge project rebuilding villages in southern India hard hit by the tsunami, a Lexington Habitat contingent was organized. Todd signed on.

From October to December 26, six teams of mostly Kentuckians -- about 80 people total -- worked in two-week shifts in the town of Muzhukkuthurai and a collection of other fishing villages in Tamil Nadu state. The final group of volunteers returned to Kentucky last week.

Volunteers, who paid their own expenses to India (about $2,500 each), laid brick walls, installed doors and windows, did wiring, built cupboards and painted. Local women were hired for less than $1 a day to carry bricks, sand and mortar on head pans. Everybody worked 10-hour days, six days a week.

"These people were poor before the tsunami," Todd said. "Most are fishermen. They live day to day on the fish they catch and what little they can sell."

Angie Elzer, 29, and her husband, Bryan, 27, both engineers who went for about three weeks, returned just before Christmas. "It was hard for us coming back this time of year with all the materialism, seeing all these gifts, when 24 hours earlier we were with people who had nothing, but always smiled and never complained," Angie said.

"We went to build houses, to give something to this village, but we took away more than we gave," she added.

Habitat for Humanity International is partnering with The Leprosy Mission on the rebuilding project. Construction plans in Muzhukkuthurai call for 161 houses, roads, a community center, school and medical clinic. Habitat will build 111 of the houses and has overall project management responsibility.

Kentuckians started 21 houses; 10 were 95 percent complete by the time they left. "We had hoped to get more done, but there were so many obstacles," said Pat Smith, who helped organized the Lexington group.

Progress was hampered by heavy rains, washed out roads, problems in land acquisition and strict government building restrictions.

Smith, his wife Jean and several other Lexingtonians returned to Lexington Tuesday night.

Weather was a persistent problem. "Funny, but in India it's either dusty or muddy, no in-between," said Smith, 58, honored in 2004 as Habitat for Humanity's National Volunteer of the Year.

Monsoons started in October and rain flooded roads, sometimes for days, making it impossible to reach the village, a half-hour drive from their hotel. One storm washed out the main road, which took four days to repair.

"We had cyclones equivalent to what weather service here would consider a tropical storm," Smith said. "Three times those things rolled up and pumped out a lot of water. We were stranded in the city."

The village where the Kentuckians worked has electricity, but on a limited basis. There is no running water, no indoor bathrooms or sewer facilities.

"It's a very, very tough environment and very dirty," Smith said.

"There are open sewers, cows everywhere, garbage in the marketplace thrown on the ground," said his wife, Jean. Drinking water comes from a nearby river where cows wade and people bathe, wash their clothes and urinate.

Smith said they saw thousands of people who lived in equally deplorable conditions to the villagers they were helping, "but their houses had not been swept away."

Acquiring land for Habitat houses and getting government approval at times was a logistical nightmare. Villagers were not allowed to rebuild where they had lived, which was on a barrier island. Instead, they were told to build on the mainland, 100 feet back from the shoreline.

Building codes are stringent, requiring concrete roofs and double-course brick walls. "We were building bomb shelters, essentially," Smith said. "People told us the rules had always been on the books, but until the tsunami, they'd never been enforced. Now they are."

The project is funded with an $800,000 grant from the Habitat Disaster Relief Fund. Kentucky's Habitat donated $75,000 from a J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation grant. Volunteers paid for their own air fare, hotel and food.

Before Kentuckians left the tiny village, they hired caterers to prepare a meal of rice with little bits of chicken for the villagers. For 800 people it cost $250, Todd said. "People considered it a feast. They thought it unbelievable we were supplying this big meal."

While extremely poor, villagers were very proud, he said. "Their clothes were clean. They were clean. You never saw anybody dirty, even though the water they washed in was dirty. You could submerge yourself in that river and not see any of your body parts."

Mike Green, a local Habitat board member who was also touched by his Indian experience, recalled that 50 village children needed shoes for school. A couple on the trip arranged to buy shoes for them.

"I can't talk about this without getting choked up," he said, pausing.

"But it was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. In this country, you could give kids a Game Boy and they would not be as ecstatic as those children were to get a pair of plain black shoes."


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Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or bfortune@herald-leader.com


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