Sri Lanka

German Rotary clubs help Sri Lanka recover

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Kerstin Jeska-Zimmermann, 2004-05 governor of District 1950 (Germany), was vacationing with her husband in Sri Lanka's Hikkaduwa resort town in December 2004 when the powerful tsunami hit.

"All of a sudden, there was absolute silence, as if nature was holding her breath," Jeska-Zimmermann recalls. "After a few minutes, we heard people frantically screaming, 'The water is coming!' "

Stepping outside, from the safety of their elevated perch, Jeska-Zimmermann and her husband saw locals and tourists running from the beach uphill to a Buddhist temple on higher ground, many bleeding, others carrying children in their arms.

"We and our Sri Lankan staff immediately invited some of the worst injured inside, giving first aid to about two dozen people," she says.

In the days following, as Jeska-Zimmermann and her husband tried to grasp the scope of the devastation, they joined a group of Sri Lankans attempting to discover the fate of patients at the Mahamodara Hospital in Galle, about 12 miles southeast of their resort, where 40-70 babies were born daily. Mercifully, all the patients had been evacuated to the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital further inland before the second, stronger wave hit.

Seeing dozens of women in labor lying on cardboard on the floor of the overcrowded teaching hospital, Jeska-Zimmermann vowed to help. She faxed a handwritten list of urgently needed medicine and supplies, along with a plea for help, back home to be distributed to all club presidents in her district.

The first, 2-ton shipment of emergency medical supplies left the Frankfurt airport within two weeks of her appeal, followed shortly after by a second, 7-ton shipment that included sonogram equipment, operating tents, tables, and tools for the devastated hospital.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, German Rotary clubs in 12 districts raised more than €1.5 million (US$2.1 million) in donations and equipment.

Jeska-Zimmermann also met with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was vacationing on the same island, and the Kohl Foundation agreed to provide €9 million ($12.9 million) to construct a new maternity hospital about 9 miles inland of the Mahamodara facility. Workers broke ground on the project on the one-year anniversary of the tsunami, but work was subsequently delayed by Sri Lanka's civil war.

In early 2010, German clubs, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Colombo, Western Province, plan on providing about $300,000 to equip the old Mahamodara hospital building with two new delivery rooms and two operating rooms.

Jeska-Zimmermann will travel to Sri Lanka in January to oversee the effort.

"Our tsunami project in Sri Lanka -- which is only one of hundreds of Rotary recovery projects -- shows the tremendous speed, efficiency, and flexibility of the Rotarian network," she says. "This powerful sentiment was echoed by the medical staff and mothers who saw firsthand our global humanitarian network in action."