The week the tsunami struck – a personal account

January 2005

Dr Gaya Gamhewage, WHO
Dr Gaya Gamhewage, WHO

Dr Gaya Gamhewage is a medical officer working in WHO's Health Action in Crises department in Geneva. She is also a trained doctor and a Sri Lankan citizen. Gaya was in Sri Lanka visiting family and friends when the tsunami struck. This is her diary of life, death and disaster in her native country.

Day one

"A tsunami hit early this morning. There is shock, disbelief and horror. Fishing communities, tourist enclaves, and villages are destroyed.

"An entire train carrying around 2000 people has been whipped off its tracks. Hundreds of people attending the Sunday market in Hambantota have been washed out to sea along with entire bus loads of people in pilgrimage and safari vehicles.

"Nearly 5000 people are reported dead. The numbers of injured and missing are rising. Identification of the dead has started."

The south coast of Sri Lanka two days before the tsunami struck
The south coast of Sri Lanka two days before the tsunami struck

Day two

"We’re counting the dead and finding the living. The whole country is organizing itself to help those affected, collecting food, clothes and other things that people need to survive. I’ve joined a small team of WHO staff in Colombo and we’re giving support to the Ministry of Health, helping to establish priorities for action, ordering emergency health kits for 120 000 people, and beginning to gather information and liaise with the United Nations.

"We’ve also ordered two million chlorine tabs for water purification, and set up teams to track damage and response on a district-by-district basis. Extra WHO staff are being brought in to help."

Day three

"Today the death toll has reached 10 000. Around one million people have nowhere to go; most are seeking shelter in temples, schools or in neighbouring communities. Over 700 doctors have been mobilized, 500 nurses are on standby, and medical teams are being airlifted to affected areas. Internal relief supplies have started to reach some of the affected areas.

Total devastation as boats are thrown into buildings
Total devastation as boats are thrown into buildings

"Many roads are still impassable. The journey to the town where my grandmother lives normally takes two hours – today it took eight. Safe drinking water, proper sanitation, shelter, clothing and medical supplies are the top priorities. We have drawn up a list of the most urgently required drugs. WHO today helped the Ministry of Health call the first health sector coordination meeting in Colombo, where we discussed the most urgent response and the drugs that are needed.”

Day four

"The number of dead now exceeds 15 000, with up to one million displaced people. There are mass burials. The death certification process, mass coroner's hearings, finger printing and photograph-taking of the dead are being abandoned in many areas as bodies are decomposing.

Survivors use masks to cover the smell of dead bodies
Survivors use masks to cover the smell of dead bodies

"WHO is helping to coordinate the health response. Joint WHO and Ministry of Health teams are being sent to four affected districts in the south to assess the situation and report back."

Day five

"Tragically, the death toll has reached 23 000. There are 560 camps providing shelter and aid to 750 000 displaced people. We’re helping the Ministry issue circulars on managing the public health aspects of the crises, down to field level. Lack of safe water and proper sanitation is a crucial issue. We fear there will be disease outbreaks. International teams are arriving in numbers.

"Worldwide, WHO is mobilizing more staff. In Sri Lanka we are sending health assessment teams to the east of the country, helping to coordinate foreign teams and set up a disease surveillance system."

Day six

"There are more than 30 000 dead. Will the numbers ever stop rising? The extent of damage in the north and east is becoming clearer. The national authorities are taking the lead. Roads are opening up but flash floods complicate the relief effort. Landmines in the north pose threat to communities and relief workers.

Relief aid getting through to some affected areas
Relief aid getting through to some affected areas

"WHO is providing regular information to the Ministry of Health and others so that the disaster can be assessed and the response based on identified needs. We are drawing on WHO's vast public health expertise in communicable diseases, water and sanitation, mental health, environment, and health systems."

Day seven

“WHO has a strong and experienced country team in Sri Lanka. Regional offices and headquarters have rapidly deployed staff and material resources to the country and we are effectively supporting the Ministry of Health and integrating in the overall relief effort.

“I leave Sri Lanka today. Like millions of others, this is a holiday season I will never forget.”

Dr Gaya Gamhewage returned to Geneva this week and is continuing her full time involvement in the health response from WHO headquarters.