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In Eastern Sri Lanka

For Rich and Poor, Waves Bring Ruin

Tsunami Had Scant Regard for Economic Status

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A09

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, Dec. 28 -- For J.D. Vaz and M.Vasantna, the earthquake-driven waves that roared ashore without warning Sunday were a great leveler.

Vaz is the executive director of the Nelaveli Beach Resort, a once-luxurious compound on Sri Lanka's east coast, where guests strolled amid whitewashed cottages in a palm grove. Vasantna, the daughter of a gardener at the hotel, ran a food stall just outside its main gate, where she earned about $4 a day selling snacks.

Relatives of a tsunami victim cry near her coffin in Koralawella, near Colombo. Nearly 22,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka. (Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi -- Reuters)

Now each is facing potential ruin.

The waves killed nine people at the Nelaveli, turning it into a junkyard of sodden bedding and splintered furniture -- and causing nightmares for its owners, whose insurance does not cover damage from "earthquake waves," according to Vaz.

The same water played havoc with Vasantna's life, smashing her flimsy stall, filling her house with mud and seawater and leaving her to wonder how her family will eat if the hotel stays closed.

"I can reopen," Vasantna, 26, said of her ruined stall, "but whom will I sell food to if there aren't any tourists?"

The poor bore the brunt of the disaster on Sunday, as they do in most natural disasters. Still, the tsunami appeared to have been unusually impartial in its apportionment of death and human suffering, upending the lives of rich and poor with scant regard for economic or social status.

The disaster hit Sri Lanka, an island nation of 20 million off the tip of southern India, harder than most countries, with almost 22,000 dead. The victims included local villagers, foreign tourists, civil servants and business people. The economy, which depends heavily on tourism, could now lose a full percentage point off its growth rate next year, according to some forecasts.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, attention focused on Sri Lanka's southwestern coast, which is relatively dense with inhabitants and tourist development. It also is near the capital, Colombo.

Here on the east coast, which is considerably poorer and harder to reach, there are fewer people and resorts. That is partly because the region was more heavily affected by the long-running civil war -- between government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels -- that ended in a cease-fire agreement in early 2002.

But this coast, which directly faces the waves' point of origin, was badly pummeled Sunday, and reports of death and damage continued to trickle in Tuesday from remote areas, including those still controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. As many as 2,000 people may have been killed in Tiger territory, rebel officials said.

Trincomalee, known for its fishing fleet, natural harbor and Dutch colonial-era fort, is a city of about 100,000 people. It is roughly 150 miles northeast of Colombo -- a seven-hour drive on partly paved, winding roads. On the main road into town Tuesday afternoon, there were some obvious signs of flooding, including a large fishing vessel stranded on one lane.

The waves killed at least 850 people in the Trincomalee district, which has a population of about 350,000, according to D.S. Arumainayaham, the official overseeing relief efforts in the city. The death toll in the city of Trincomalee, most of which is comfortably above sea level, was 36, he said.

Relief trucks had already arrived in the city, and navy personnel were busy unloading boxes of bottled water and food. But the seawater contaminated much of the city's water supply and displaced about 25,000 people, Arumainayaham said. Many were being sheltered in schools and Buddhist temples.

The destruction was far worse to the north of the city. Near the main coastal road, fishing vessels had been tossed into the parking lot of a cricket stadium, and the rank smell of low tide wafted from fields where onions usually grow. The discovery of several more bodies, smelling strongly in the dense tropical heat, drew a small crowd. White flags -- which Buddhists use to announce the death of a relative -- hung outside modest homes.

At the Nelaveli, where some guest cottages were obliterated by the rush of water, hotel executives and insurance adjusters picked their way among the ruins. The front desk manager, who declined to give his name, said 72 of the hotel's 80 rooms had been occupied when the waves struck. Among the dead were a young Indian couple and a hotel employee trapped inside a cottage he was cleaning.

"This was one of the most beautiful places in all Sri Lanka," said Vaz, the executive director, who traveled from his office in Colombo to check on the hotel. Built in 1974, it had already suffered occasional damage from crossfire during the civil war.

Vaz said he was hopeful the hotel would be rebuilt, but at a higher elevation. Despite uncertainty about whether the property was covered for a tsunami, he added, the hotel's insurance company has indicated it will pay for part of the cost of rebuilding. "But how much is the question," Vaz said.

The outcome of that negotiation will have a direct bearing on the lives of Vasantna and her father, who has worked at the hotel for the last 20 years.

A slender, unmarried woman with angular features, Vasantna normally lives with her father in a small brick house near her shop. For now, they are spending their nights on the floor of a church.

They will go home, she said, when their house dries out.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company