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One year after: East-West Center continues long-term help to tsunami-ravaged areas

News and Press Release
Originally published
The following is a look at the East-West Center's involvement over the past year in the relief and reconstruction efforts in South and Southeast Asia... and the Center's long-term commitment to helping those affected rebuild their lives ... as we near the first anniversary of the deadly earthquake and tsunami that laid waste to much of the region.

HONOLULU (Dec. 20) -- Within hours of last December's deadly and devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami in South and Southeast Asia, the East-West Center became involved. EWC President Charles E. Morrison said, "In the 45 years since the East-West Center was established, the Asia Pacific region has not seen such widespread suffering as a result of a single, catastrophic event." He added the Center would take a leading role in responding to the tragedy. "We want to do what we can to help the victims on the ground."

With the cooperation of First Hawaiian Bank, the Center immediately established the East-West Center Tsunami Relief Fund to distribute donations to non-profit organizations joining in tsunami relief efforts in the affected areas. During the past 12 months over half a million dollars, varying in amounts from pocket change collected at schools such as Pahoa Middle and High School on the island of Hawai'i to checks for thousands of dollars from private citizens and businesses throughout the state and region, have flowed into the fund and out into the stricken area.

East-West Center staffers and students made trips to the region to lend a hand and to assess firsthand the physical and human toll of the tsunami. Their observations made clear the role the East-West Center would take. Within a month of the disaster, Morrison noted, "The priority now is shifting from short-term emergency relief toward longer-term rebuilding ... we are readying a package of activities related to reconstruction and to preparedness against future disasters."


One of the areas quickly identified for reconstruction help was education. After returning from the tsunami-ravaged regions of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Terry Bigalke, director of the East-West Center's Education Program, brought back with him one over-riding message from those in the field: "We need help with our schools." Bigalke noted that many faculty members and students were killed, buildings destroyed, books and computers lost.

Specific non-profit organizations were selected to receive funds to help rebuild educational infrastructure and replace supplies lost to the killer wave. The human element was not neglected. The Center entered into an agreement this past summer with the Ar-Raniry State Institute Islamic Studies (IAIN) in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to enable students from the institution to complete their college degrees in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, and then return to the tsunami-ravaged provincial capital to teach. The IAIN and the Center also agreed to develop further cooperative activities. IAIN's rector, Prof. Rusjdi Ali Muhammad, said at the time, "We're very grateful for this aid and cooperation and we are confident that this relationship will be a lasting one for both of our institutions and countries."

Another major ongoing educational initiative is the East-West Center sponsored Schools-Helping-Schools program. The program evolved through the joint efforts of the Center's staff and a network of teachers who are former EWC AsiaPacificEd participants. Namji Steinemann, the EWC's director of AsiaPacificEd, noted that "their students from across the U.S. have raised funds to provide tuition, uniforms, books, supplies, and food for students in the hard hit areas." The program focuses on Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Steinemann added, " The program aims to connect these students in partnerships that will support long-term recovery and fosters ties between cultures." Last July, Steinemann accompanied twenty U.S. teachers to Phuket, Thailand, to visit schools in the area and view the situation firsthand.

They visited Wat Komneeyakhet School, which received sixty-two bicycles to allow displaced students to commute to school. Another stop was Ban Pak Weep School, one-year of school bus service will allow its displaced students to travel to and from classes. Various other schools in the three tsunami-affected countries have also partnered with U.S. schools, including Kula High and Intermediate, Punahou, and Ahuimanu Elementary schools in Hawai'i.

The Schools-Helping-Schools project has also helped American students learn the pain of the trauma brought on by last December's tragedy through letters sent to them by their Thai counterparts. Fourteen-year-old Sakulya Nopparit wrote, "At 10:23 a.m. 26 December 2004, I never forget. There were big waves from sea which call tsunami ... It killed a lot of people ... There were dead bodies and fallen trees on roads. It took my house. I didn't have a house ... my family were sad." The young Thai finished her letter with a hand-drawn sun weeping and the large printed words: "Life is so sad".

The East-West Center's Bigalke said after his trip to the region, "People who have lived their lives on or near the water are afraid (now) to look at the sea." His observation was echoed in another letter from a Thai student: "I hate the sea." Fourteen-year-old Putcharaporn Klatalay wrote, "Saturday on 26 Dec. 2004, I went to Pakarang Beach with my close friend. We talked about our boy friends, my studying, our futures and others. The sky was nice and the sunshine was fine. Suddenly ... the big wave coming to us. We ran very fast. The big wave took me to hit a tree and my body was in between branches. When the big wave had down, I didn't see my friend. I saw many dead people. I was crying."

The Schools-Helping-Schools program has expanded with a recent grant from the U.S. State Department. According to the EWC's Steinemann, 25 American students will be selected to visit schools in the tsunami affected areas of Thailand while an equal number of Thai students will spend approximately three weeks in Honolulu. The student exchange program will focus, according to Steinemann, "on the role of youth in building disaster-resilient communities."


Indonesian graduate student Muhamad Ali was safe in Honolulu that tragic day. But his heart was home. "I was sitting on my computer. So, I read news and I was crying." The East-West Center degree fellow and Ph.D. candidate voiced what was on many minds. "Many lives could have been saved if the countries affected had an early warning system for tsunamis ... the international community should help developing countries to set a system to avoid another disaster like this one."

The Maui-based Pacific Disaster Center, of which the East-West Center is the managing partner, agreed and was fast off the mark with tools to help do just that. Within days of the tsunami, the PDC launched its Indian Ocean Tsunami Geospatial Information Service in support of the emergency managers responding to the disaster in South and Southeast Asia. Chris Chiesa, PDC senior manager, pointed out that "accurate geospatial information is an absolutely indispensable resource during disaster response and recovery." The service provided geospatial information including baseline Landsat imagery, SRTM-derived shaded relief images, LANDSCAN-derived population density, detailed coastlines, damage polygons, and high-resolution imagery as it became available.

But response and recovery were not the only things on the PDC's plate. In short order, the Maui center deployed, among other things, Tsunami Response Map Viewers to the region. Chiesa noted that "Whereas the service we launched earlier specifically supports the ... needs of emergency managers, the Map Viewer allows planners, decision makers, as well as the general public to view vital information."

And, the PDC's involvement with the tsunami-stricken region has only grown during this past year. The Center's experts have been working closely on the ground with area governments and their scientific counterparts to establish and improve disaster warning centers and awareness. In November, the PDC signed a formal agreement with the government of Thailand's Natural Disaster Warning Center to help develop the Thai Center's early disaster warning platform. Ray Shirkhodai, the PDC's chief operating officer, said the "PDC is extremely proud to support Thailand's further development of disaster analysis and warning dissemination capabilities and to play a role in reducing future disaster impacts at the national level."

Assisting the PDC in this project are Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Lockheed Martin Information Technology (LMIT) and Sun Microsystems. The Thai project will compliment current efforts by the U.S. Agency of International Development to develop a comprehensive region Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System.

The PDC continues to work with affected countries in attempts to upgrade their early warning, planning, and dissemination systems. Allen Clark, the PDC executive director and senior EWC research fellow, notes, "There's a growing need to share knowledge and enhance coordination ... The real tragedy of all this (the tsunami devastation) is that the system is there, the technology is there, the capability is there, it just wasn't in place in the Indian Ocean when the thing hit. " The Maui-based disaster experts have also recently completed a new Tsunami Awareness Kit that gives governments, businesses, educators, and the general public a framework in which to prepare for and recover from any future natural disasters.

Further Afield

Experts at the East-West Center are also looking past the obvious in trying to determine the possible affects of the deadly tsunami on the lives of those in the region and elsewhere. Center researchers continue to watch the political implications, both internally and externally, of last December's tsunami on the countries in South and Southeast Asia; as well as economic, health, and environmental developments.

In collaboration with colleagues from the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley and regional partners, the EWC's Research Program mounted a project aimed at understanding the risks of possible human rights abuses in the aftermath of the tsunami in the five countries most affected, Indonesia, India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

As a tribute to those who died in the tsunami and to those who survived it, the East-West Center has also published a large format 52-page softcover book Hope for Renewal: Photographs from Indonesia after the Tsunami. The images by Hawai'i photographer Marco Garcia chronicle the rescue, recovery and rebuilding of communities. Adding to the experience, the book also includes a firsthand account of surviving the tsunami by EWC alumnus Muslahuddin Daud. Through the good offices of PT Bank Bumiputera Indonesia, Tbk, all proceeds from the sales of the book go to the East-West Center Tsunami Relief Fund.

The Center's president, Charles E. Morrison, notes that initially all relief funds were earmarked for short-term efforts. But, he adds, "Now we are working closely with institutions to provide long-term support through our education and research programs." Work that Morrison says is undertaken in tribute to those who have had their lives changed forever by the tsunami. "Their resilience and determination are an inspiration for our continued work in promoting an Asia Pacific community."

The East-West Center, headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii, contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States.

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For more detailed information and photographs about the East-West Center's Response to the Asia Tsunami, please visit

For further information concerning this news release or other information regarding the East-West Center please contact John Lewis at +(808) 944-7204 or via email at