Update: Sri Lanka's Coast, After the Tsunami

Steve Inskeep talks to Steve Matthews of the relief organization World Vision. Morning Edition talked with him last year, just after the deadly tsunami struck Sri Lanka. Matthews has returned to the region repeatedly over the last year, and is currently in Galle, Sri Lanka.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One year ago, aid workers were just beginning to see the destruction left by an Indian Ocean tsunami. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters ever, leaving some 270,000 people dead or missing. It was about this time last year that we called Sri Lanka and found Steve Matthews of the group World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization.

Mr. STEVE MATTHEWS (World Vision): As we traveled down the coast, we went past, you know, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of homes that had been destroyed, and in a lot of cases, the people, they have the affinity to the ground that they lived upon, so they're basically sitting in the rubble of what's left of their homes. And a lot of them really don't know what to do.

INSKEEP: That's Steve Matthews describing the scene in Sri Lanka one year ago. We've reached him again in Sri Lanka this week, and he's on the line from the city of Galle.

Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: If you take that same walk along the coastline now in Sri Lanka, what do you see?

Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, I remember that trip from Colombo to Galle. It took us over nine hours in a vehicle. That same trip this week took two and a half hours. And the thing that really struck me about being back is if you didn't know there was a tsunami here a year ago, you probably would not be able to tell just by visually looking at that same stretch of road. What you would think, though, is there's an awful lot of construction going on in this country right now.

But you know, a lot of getting back to normal has happened in the last year. The fishing industry is probably the best example of that. For about one or two months after the tsunami, the fishermen were afraid of the sea, not all of them, but a lot of them. And they also didn't have the boats, so they couldn't get back. So it's about overcoming and getting back to life as normal.

INSKEEP: People are rebuilding everywhere.

Mr. MATTHEWS: It's really encouraging to see. But I must stress that we're only one year into this program. It's going to take another four to five years to complete some of the dreams that we have for the people of Sri Lanka.

INSKEEP: We've heard that some communities have been rebuilt farther away from the coast to guard against another disaster.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah. That's been a part of the slowness of building permanent structures. There's been the issues of people losing their land, losing their legal documents to rebuild. There has been the arguments over how far homes have to be built away from the shoreline. At first it was a 200-meter buffer, then it was down to a 50-meter buffer zone. So all of those issues have come into play and have made this response a little slower and more frustrating than we would like it to be. But at the same time, we have to remember this was an unprecedented humanitarian disaster like nothing we'd ever seen, and it required a response like we'd never seen before, either.

INSKEEP: When you spoke to us a year ago, you also mentioned that people were having to bury their dead in mass graves. They considered that a public health measure. Of course, many people were distressed to have to take that step. What have people done since, when it comes to mourning those that they lost?

Mr. MATTHEWS: There have been a lot of tears here in Sri Lanka today. There have been some official memorial services to mark the one-year anniversary. But at the same time, while people grieve a year later and remember what went on--I see this in every country I go to, not just Sri Lanka, and I work in disasters all over the world--people always rise to the occasion, and that's the thing about humanitarian aid. We don't just bring stuff to people. We come here, we gain their trust and we also give them hope. And that goes a long way, because that means that we don't have to do all the work.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to Steve Matthews. He's with World Vision in Sri Lanka.

Thanks very much.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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