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Tsunami Devastation

Report from India

"[I]f it is a question of a message where it is said that the oceans will entirely flood certain parts of the earth, that from moment to moment, millions of men will die ..."

— Pope John Paul II speaking about the Third Secret of Fatima.
Taken from The Third Secret by Frère Michel, p.659.

by Mairead Clarke

One month after the tsunami hit the eastern coast of India, the people are still in shock. So many people lost family and friends and neighbors. Parents lost children, children lost parents and siblings. Very few had ever heard the term tsunami, no one had ever experienced such a phenomenon.

The most devastated area in India was the southeast coast. Most of the lives lost were fishermen and their families. Before the disaster, these families lived in traditional palm and stick huts on the beach. Some had brick cottages with tile roofs, within steps of the sandy beaches. All that is left of their homes is scattered piles of broken debris. All clothes, furniture, cooking pots, possessions, are gone.

To assist the people, food is distributed through government agencies and Church organizations. For the most part, parish and diocesan social service organizations have taken the burden of ensuring that the afflicted have food and shelter. Cooking pots and tarpaulins have been distributed. Large bags of rice, 15 kilos each, and a bottle of sunflower oil are given to each family twice each week. Rice is the staple food and eaten three times each day. Fish used to be served at least once each day in these households, but now there are no boats or nets to fish with. The fishing boats that they would pull up onto the beach when not in use, lie broken. Their nets, usually spread on the beach to dry, are now torn, tangled and ruined. Many of the fishermen are now afraid of the ocean that gave them their living and food.

From Madras South

Driving from Chennai (Madras) to Vailankanni, along the coastal road, one sees blue tent cities. These are the tarpaulins freely distributed to give shelter to the homeless. Parish social services are inundated with parents who are lucky to have survived, begging for new school uniforms for their children. The children cannot go to school without the uniform the tsunami carried off. Regardless of religion, most children attend Catholic schools, so the parents come to the Catholic Church for assistance.

The most devastated dioceses are those of Thanjavur, Pondicherry and Cuddalore. Thanjavur had the most loss of life. It also had a remarkable phenomenon.

Our Lady’s Shrine Miraculously Preserved

The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health, in the town of Vailankanni, is near the beach. Many pilgrims come to Vailankanni, particularly over Christmas, as it is a public holiday. The fact that the shrine is also in a resort area brings all manner of people from all over the country.

On the morning of December 26, 2004, many families had gathered at Vailankanni, and many had attended early Mass. After Mass, the families visit the beach. The Portuguese sailors saved by a vision of Our Lady during a vicious storm several hundred years ago, landed on the beach at Vailankanni.

But many who visited the beach that morning did not return. They watched as the water receded from the beach to form a giant wall which then came crashing down on them and swept them out to sea. They had no knowledge of such a phenomenon.

The wall of water came crashing through the town, but miraculously stopped at the second step of the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. The market square, 400 feet past the Shrine church, was destroyed.

Buried Under Tons of Sand

It has been estimated that 1,000 people died at Vailankanni alone, including pilgrims. The district known as Nagapattinam lost an estimated 7,000. Because of the heat, those bodies that washed back to shore in the following days were photographed and buried in mass graves. The photos are available to those who search for missing loved ones. More than 900 bodies have been recovered in Vailankanni, and the digging continues for those buried under tons of sand.

Those who survived have been given shelter in many of the Shrine institutions and schools. Those pilgrims who survived have returned to their homes. Some without the family they came with.

As always, there are the positive stories of survivors. One lady found alive after being buried in debris for three days; a child found in a bush in the cemetery; a pilgrim lady, swept out to sea, landed alive on the shore 10 kilometers south of Vailankanni.


The Shrine Basilica containing the tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle was untouched by the tsunami, yet the fishing village behind the Shrine was wiped out.

Help Given — Needed

Much help has been given, and much more help will be needed to put devastated lives back on track.

I visited with the Auxiliary Bishop of Madras and Mylapore Archdiocese. The fishing village on the beach behind the Shrine Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle (the tomb of the Apostle of India is beneath the church) was wiped out. Yet the Basilica was not touched by the water.

It has been planned by the government to give land to the tsunami victims and houses will be constructed for them. But the housing planned is far from the sea, and the houses barely big enough for a family of two. The Archdiocese of Madras and Mylapore would like to increase the size of the housing for each family, and perhaps secure land closer to the sea for the fishermen. A donation was given to the Archdiocese for the victims they feed and house.

At Kovalam, in the diocese of Chingleput, south of Chennai, we met with Father Charles. This priest, who celebrates 25 years of service to the Church this April, has a large area to oversee. Three villages in his parish were decimated. The people have received the government aid, but still need items such as school uniforms, so their children can get back to something of a normal routine.

In the compound, there is a beautiful old church, a priest’s house, an elementary school, a high school, an orphanage for boys, and another for girls, as well as a home for destitute elderly men. Outside the compound is a number of private houses and a convent which houses 20 destitute elderly women, 18 of whom are Catholic.

A donation to Father Charles for the people of his parish who now live in tents, and another donation to Sister Mary Norbertine for the destitute women, brought great smiles and promises of many prayers for the generosity of Our Lady’s Fatima Apostolate.

Father Ratchagar, of the Pondicherry Multipurpose Social Service Society, met with us and gave details of what is needed for the people to get back at least a portion of their working lives: Fishing nets cost approximately $1600.00 U.S. (different types have different costs). A fishing boat is approximately $1600.00 U.S. and a boat engine costs about $900.00 U.S. While the government is willing to give a portion of these needed funds to each fisherman, the balance will be realized by a bank loan which will have an interest rate of 5% per annum. As the majority of those hardest hit by the tsunami lived on the poverty line before, their ability to pay back a loan is questionable.

People Lost Everything

We gave a large donation to Father Ratchagar for the victims’ relief fund and then visited one of the distribution centers organized by him, in a local school. Previously, cooking pots had been distributed. The people lined up for their ration of rice and oil. The women had smiles for us, but their eyes showed the emptiness of despair. Imagine having to line up for a donation of food, which you would cook over an open fire before your tarpaulin tent home. Every possession they had was washed away, their homes destroyed, family members and neighbors lost.

Then we visited the site of a devastated fishing village. Whole houses a heap of rubble; boats broken in half; pieces of catamarans scattered around; giant balls of netting so tangled and torn, gathered up and abandoned.

On the land side of what had been a village, a new village had sprung up. Tents made from the blue tarpaulins draped over tree branches. No sanitary arrangements; no running water; the water truck comes daily to bring a supply of cooking and drinking water. People standing around, perhaps wondering what to do next, they have no work and nothing to occupy their day. They are lucky to be alive, but have no way of coping with the loss of their way of life.

Terror, Devastation and Gratitude

At Vailankanni we met with the Rector of the Shrine, Mons. P. Xavier, and the Bishop of Thanjavur, Most Reverend Dr. M.D. Ambrose. They told of the devastation to the people: the disruption of the normal way of life; how young girls, planning to marry, now could not because their dowries had been lost; of trying to console pilgrims who had lost loved ones; of the need for funds to re-educate the fishermen who were too terrified to go back to the sea to fish.

Again we saw the destruction of homes and livelihoods; the enormous numbers of devastated people; the heavy burden taken on by the Church to feed, house and rehabilitate thousands of people. And, yes, the government of India is certainly helping, as are outside relief organizations, but our donation of funds for the immediate needs of the victims was also gratefully received.

Each of the bishops and priests that we met and talked to is anxious that more help will be forthcoming in the near future. All have expressed grateful thanks for the assistance already received, but all are concerned that after the initial shock, people will forget the terrible tragedy and ongoing help will not be forthcoming.

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