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Tsunami: First Person

Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2005; 1:00 PM

Last week, when a massive tsunami hit several countries in South Asia, Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs was swimming off the coast of a tiny island in Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka. Dobbs survived by grabbing hold of a stray fishing boat, not yet aware that his wife and children were also safe:

"Though it's been only two weeks since we left a wintry Washington for sunny Sri Lanka, it seems like several lifetimes ago. During those two weeks, we have seen both paradise and hell, and a surrealistic netherworld in between. Preoccupations that loomed large just a few days ago seem trivial. People and places we had never heard about have become tragically familiar."

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Dobbs was online Monday, Jan. 3, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his experience and the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Michael Dobbs: Thanks for joining me on this on-line chat. You have probably been reading my reports in the Post, so fire away with anything on your mind.


Alexandria, Va.: I suppose one of the lessons from your story is that the next time a crow lands on your table and starts squawking at you, sit up and pay attention!

Michael Dobbs: Animals do seem to have a special instinct for sensing disaster. At Yala national park, which is just down the coast from where we were and very seriously affected, gameskeepers were surprised to find very few corpses of animals. It seems they all headed inland before the tsunami struck.


Washington, D.C.: I appreciate that the tsunami came as quite a shock to your vacationing family! Do you feel your account is more than just slightly insipid given the vast amount of poverty just outside the gates of your private island?

Michael Dobbs: You are right in pointing to the huge contrast between our experiences and the experiences of many other people, including most of the local population. Like many natural disasters, this one took the biggest toll on the weakest and poorest sectors of the community, particularly children and women. In today's article and one I wrote on the day of the tsunami, however, I tried to describe what it was like to experience the tsunami from the vantage point of one middle-class American family. I and other Post reporters have done our best to describe the experiences of those who were less fortunate.


Bethesda, Md.: Thank you for your excellent pieces in the paper. Two things I was trying to envision about your experience: 1. Was your island always reachable by simply wading through the water from the mainland, so when you and your brother were swimming, you could actually touch bottom until the water began to rise? 2. Could you please explain what is seen in the "after" photo in today's paper? Is the white structure the remains of front gate that is seen in the photo of your arrival? Thanks.

Michael Dobbs: The island is usually reachable simply by wading out from the beach, except at high tide. Once the wave struck, however, the water rapidly rose so high that it was impossible to touch the bottom.
The "after" photo in today's paper shows the remains of the front gate, parts of which we later found swept up a mile or so down the beach.


Washington, D.C.: I've heard stories of people who were out in the water at the time barely feeling anything and the brunt of the tsunami being felt on land. What was your experience like? Did it feel like some sort of strong undertow?

Michael Dobbs: It was stronger than simply a strong undertow. But you are right in concluding that the water was not the most dangerous place to be. It was more dangerous in a confined space on land, such as a bus or a van or a flimsy house, which collapsed on top of its occupants.


Oakton, Va.: I think we here have no real sense of the devastation over there. Can you help us try to understand?

Michael Dobbs: In Weligama, which is the fishing village next to my brother's island, about 300 local people lost their lives. The fishing fleet was largely wiped out, and much of the business district, shops etc., was totally devastated, up to half a mile inland. On the other hand, if you went up the hill slightly, there was very little damage. It all depended where you were.


Olney, Md.: Was there any warning whatsoever of the impending danger from tsunami warning sirens?

Michael Dobbs: We now know that the tsunami hit the Sri Lankan coast around three hours after the original earthquake. However, there was absolutely no warning, apart from strange behavior by animals, which we thought nothing of at the time.


Honolulu, Hawaii: What are your thoughts on the lack of warning for the Indian Ocean countries?

Michael Dobbs: Obviously it would make sense to introduce a Tsunami early warning system for the Indian ocean similar to a system that already exists in the Pacific. Unlike earthquakes, tsunamis can be predicted and tracked, as they race across the ocean.


Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon Mr. Dobbs,

Forgive such a personal question. I wonder how people are coping with any "survivor's guilt." I have been dealing with some feelings of guilt for having found my sister in less than 24 hours, in Thailand, safe and sound. Are you struggling with this?

Michael Dobbs: I am intensely aware of our good fortune, which contrasts with so many tragedies, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. That is one reason why I would like to support the efforts of my brother and other local businessmen and hoteliers to rebuild these devastated communities. He and others have already established a website, www.adoptsrilanka.com, which describes what they are doing, and appeals for help.


washingtonpost.com: Stay tuned. Live at 2 p.m. ET: CARE CEO Peter D. Bell on fundraising and relief efforts.


Albany, N.Y.: What role did television play in your understanding of the tragedy? Was there TV on the island? When did you first see or read a broader than local account?

Michael Dobbs: No, we didn't have television or even a radio on the island, so we were pretty much cut off from everything. Later in the day, I did go across to the mainland, but I turned left, up the hill, where destruction was much less than in the commercial center of Weligama, which is on low-lying land to the right of the island. It was not until the following day that I visited the most seriously affected areas, and understood the scope of the disaster.


College Park, Md.: Is Weligama on the side of Sri Lanka facing the epicenter? Was the damage there more or less than for other villages and towns on the coast?

Michael Dobbs: Weligama is on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, so it was pretty much exposed to the full force of the tsunami. The eastern coast suffered a lot as well.


washingtonpost.com: www.adoptsrilanka.com


Alexandria, Va.: There are so many relief organizations assisting. Which do you think is the most effective right now. Do you have a favorite organization to which donations can be made?

Michael Dobbs: There are many relief organizations that are helping out. My own family's efforts will be directed toward Weligama and the surrounding area, through www.adoptsrilanka.com, because of our personal ties with that region. We are trying to establish some kind of 501 (c) 3 organization to accept donations, or channel donations through an existing relief agency. I believe that direct, person-to-person, or community-to-community, aid is the most effective, as it avoids the high administrative overhead associated with big aid organizations. However, there is obviously a need for both types of aid.
The biggest challenge, I think, will be getting long-term reconstruction aid to the devastated areas. Short-term humanitarian relief is more or less in hand, at least in Sri Lanka.


New York, N.Y.: Have you been able to witness accounts of rescue? Do you feel that the area is getting enough aid?

Michael Dobbs: See my previous reply. According to my brother, who is still in Weligama, they are getting enough short-term relief. The bigger problem is helping people rebuild their shattered businesses, homes, and fishing boats.


Annapolis, Md.: Hi from Annapolis again. I just happened to notice your picture alongside the article and you look very much like the man sitting next to me, well, next to his son and then me, at the Skins game yesterday. If it is you, then I, along with everyone I was with, wish we had introduced ourselves, as we were all sending your articles to each other throughout the last week and would have loved to thank you in person for your great work. You are as nice in person as your writing is fantastic. Thanks again!

Michael Dobbs: I wasn't at the Skins game yesterday, although my son was glued to the TV....


Washington, D.C.: My sympathies to all of the many devastated families in that region.

I have heard some stories from scuba divers. Did you speak with anyone who was underwater during this disaster?


Michael Dobbs: I heard one story about a group of scuba divers who were fine. They simply stayed underwater until the first tsunami passed.


Reston, Va.: I'd like to follow up on the "survivor's guilt" questiion. You mention that you are helping with the reconstruction of villages in Sri Lanka. But what about your emotional state and those of your family members? Are you all going through any sense of wondering, "Why not me?" Is it difficult readjusting to life here?

Michael Dobbs: I think our emotional state is fine. It is fortunate that my children were asleep at the time of the tsunami, so they were not worried to death about their parents, who were temporarily missing. On the other hand, this has been a life-changing experience, both for them and for us. It has made us all much more aware of how fortunate we all are.


Alexandria, Va.: How much damage did your brother's island sustain? Is it still going to be a viable business?

Michael Dobbs: The island suffered some damage, particularly around the pier and entryway, but it is easily repaired. How soon people will want to go to Sri Lanka for their holiday is another matter, of course. Tourism is one of the country's principal industries.


Washington, D.C.: It is unclear from your accounts what, exactly, you saw -- you use broad words like "devastation." Did you and your family go out on the streets and witness the harrowing scenes of dead bodies that we see on our televisions or did you just change hotels and stay inside? Also, your accounts do not indicate how this experience changed you in any tangible way. Did it? If so, do you think whatever change you and your family may have experienced will be just temporary before returning to average middle-class Amsrican concerns?

Michael Dobbs: We saw a lot of the devastation, some of which I described in subsequent articles last week for the Post. I did not take my children into Weligama, but I did take them into Galle, partly because I thought they should see what was going on. They saw the devastated bus station, with buses all topsy-turvy and piled on top of each other, and the main shopping district, which looked as if a tornado had passed through it. They also saw a lot on our eight-hour road trip back to Colombo. It has certainly had an impact on them.


Washington, D.C.: What exactly does a tsunami look like? Does it have a crest and crash like waves we're used to seeing on the beach? or is it just a swell? Also, is it just one wave or a series? Had the waves before it been getting successively stronger?

Thanks, I'm just having trouble picturing all of this and really want to understand.

Michael Dobbs: I think a lot depends where you are when the tsunami strikes. I described my experience, which was like being in a rapidly rising pool of water, while being swept inland by a strong current. At the same time, it was eerily peaceful. The sky was blue, and there were little sounds to be held. It was only after I got out of the water that I heard screams and shouting.


Falls Church, Va.: I believe in your first article you mentioned that when the same Tsunami came in while you were in the water, you were largely unafraid. You then stated that when the Tsunami retreated, you for the first time began to fear for your life. Were you caught up in the force of the water, how close did you come to being pulled out to sea, and how did you get back to the island?

Michael Dobbs: Fortunately, I got back on the catamaran in a short time, perhaps a minute. But the current was very strong at that point, so I was a little frightened.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Do you know how well the government of Sri Lanka responded after the tsunami strike? Also what complications does the civil war bring to relief efforts? Were more Tamils affected than Sinhalese or vice versa?

Michael Dobbs: The government response has been mixed. There was little happening in Weligama when I left the town the day after the disaster, although helicopters were flying overhead. In Galle, a big town down the coast, the response was much more organized. The army and police were well-organized. They were dragging away bodies, bulldozing rubble away from streets, chlorinating wells, distributing food and so on.


Bethesda, Md.: My daughter is also a student at Whitman. I hope your daughter offers to meet with students there as part of an organized assembly of some sort, and tell them firsthand about her experiences. I would think that might inspire people in the Whitman community, and Bethesda/Montgomery County more generally to re-double their efforts to contribute now when it is needed so badly. Do you think she might be talked into doing something for the school community along these lines?

Michael Dobbs: She has a good heart and is eager to help, so I am sure she would be happy to doing something with the Whitman community.


Washington, D.C.: I understand that the waves did not reach the house where you were staying because it was 60 feet up. Did any of the locals try to join you on the island?

Michael Dobbs: The villagers didn't try to join us on the island. I guess it was better for them to higher land inland, without venturing across the narrow channel, which was been swept by mini-tsunamis after the original devastating wave.


Ellicott City, Md.: What was your sense of the mental state of Sri Lankan residents who survived this disaster? Was there a spirit of determination, or gloom and despair over what happened?

Michael Dobbs: It varies from person to person. Some people become more resigned, and wait for relief efforts to reach them. Others show great energy in helping themselves and their neighbors. The focus of my brother's efforts is to help people help themselves.


Carlisle, Pa.: Just a question about Sri Lanka tourism. Would I be drawing an appropriate picture by thinking of the Carribean islands and their tourism, to create the mental imagery of the types of resorts that were devastated in Sri Lanks and Thailand?

Michael Dobbs: I am not very familiar with the Carribean. The beaches in Sri Lanka are some of the most beautiful in the world. The tourism infrastructure is relatively undeveloped, however, as the island is recovering from a brutal civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a regular contributor to Doctors without Borders, among others, and had made by contribution right before the Tsunami. Now they are saying they no longer need South Asia specific donations. I'm sure a lot of other organizations are in the same situation. I don't like to throw guilt money around. And I find that other organizations get neglected in the face of a crisis. So, I hope people will also remember their local charities, the crises in other areas, such as the Sudan, and the long term needs in South Asia. I will check out the Adopt Sri Lanka site because it has that appeal -- long term assistance -- long after most people have moved on.

Michael Dobbs: I think there is an important distinction between short-term humanitarian relief--which is coming in fast--and long-term reconstruction, which will be a huge effort, requiring vast resources.


washingtonpost.com: Join CARE CEO Peter Bell online at 2 p.m. ET to discuss donations and relief efforts.


University Park, Md.: Reading the questions just submitted, I have the strong impression that some people think that your experience implies an obligation (such as enlisting your daughter), that your middle class status makes you guilty of something, and that your brother's evident prosperity makes his motives suspect. Can you comment on this? For my part, I think you were just as much subject to chance as anyone else in the area of the event.

Michael Dobbs: It's true we could easily have been killed in this catastrophe. It's also true that the well-off and the physically fit were more likely to survive this tragedy than the poor and the weak. That is the way the world is, unfortunately, and I am more than ever aware of it.


Vienna, Va.: I wonder how you were able to avoid getting caught in surf when the tidal wave started to crash? We've read both of your accounts here in the office and none of us can figure that out.

Michael Dobbs: I have tried to explain that I wasn't caught in the surf, as I was in the sea. The water rose rapidly, but it didn't break in giant waves. If you were standing on the seashore, as the water burst out of its natural banks, then you might have got an impression of surf breaking. But even there it was more like rapidly rising water, rushing inland.


Takoma Park, Md.: I'd like to compliment you on admiting your intial thought about how your vacation would now be compromised. I'm sure most of us have had these feelings and then been horrified to find out how selfish we can be. Your truthfulness is a testament to good reporting and brought the story closer to home.

Michael Dobbs: I tried to describe what happened to us, from our perspective. It was a narrow perspective, of course, but hopefully it helped our readers what it was like for a middle-class American family to be caught up in the middle of all this.


Calgary, Alberta, Canada: Our question is in connection with the Sri Lankan staff at Taprobane. We understand from your articles that everyone on Taprobane is fine, and wonder if while you stayed in Galle whether you heard any news regarding their families?

We once stayed at Taprobane and have been following your articles and reports on Weligama and Galle and are concerned about the longer term impact of the disaster, particularly the loss of employment/income and its affects on the workers and their families.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for your question. Fortunately, they are all fine. There were some anxious moments in the first few hours, when the Sri Lankan staff were extremely worried about their families. The relief showed on their faces when they received word they were ok.


Michael Dobbs: Thanks for joining me in this discussion. I didn't get to everybody, but I hope I have answered most of your questions.


washingtonpost.com: Join CARE CEO Peter Bell online at 2 p.m. ET -- right now -- to discuss donations and relief efforts.


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