Southern Sri Lanka digs out, looks to rebuild
GALLE, Sri Lanka, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Sri Lankans have made huge progress in clearing the rubble left in the wake of the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami and thousands of displaced people have left camps for the homeless, officials and aid groups say.
While it will take years for the damage to the infrastructure and economy to be repaired, the immediate emergency in the south of the country appears to be over and efforts should now focus on reconstruction, they say.
"I think we should be finished with the clean-up here by Jan. 15," Galle Mayor M.I. Mohamed Ariff told Reuters on Friday.
"Of course a lot of work remains to be done, but we can start thinking ahead from then, thinking of the future."
The city, Sri Lanka's main southern tourist hub, caught the full force of the tsunami at the peak of the holiday season.
The beachfront was home to hundreds of little packpacker hostels, internet cafes and restaurants, most smashed beyond repair.
"At least 30 percent of this town was involved in the tourism business. All that is gone," Ariff said.
"But we will rise again. We must treat this as an opportunity to do things even better next time around."
Many of the homes and business that have sprung up along Sri Lanka's south and eastern coasts in the last two decades have done so by by-passing planning laws and regulations, but Ariff said a government ban on any immediate reconstruction within 300 metres (yards) of the sea would be strictly enforced to ensure better building standards for the future.
While older, established premises suffered flood damage from the tsunami, newer buildings disintegrated in the face of the waves -- their bricks, windows and roofs becoming deadly weapons in the churning waters that residents tried to escape.
But already there are signs of people trying to rebuild anew.
"Yes, but it is not allowed," Ariff said. "We will deal with them once the emergency is over."
Dr. Sriyana Jayasuriya, chief medical officer for Galle, said only 19 camps for displaced people, home to 20,000, remained open in Galle from a peak of 41 a few days after the tsunami.
"They are emptying quite rapidly," she told Reuters. "People want to get on with their lives."
The coastal region is turning into a "must see" stop on the celebrity aid circuit, and hotels that have been deserted by tourists are now packed with foreign relief workers, paying the same peak season rates.
On Friday it was the turn of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, but a day earlier U.S. House Majority Leader Bill Frist helicoptered in for a two-hour stay that included a tour of a shelter for homeless people and also the headquarters of a local Buddhist charity with operations around the country.
But clearly the aid train is working, and plastic sheets, cooking utensils, clothing and food are now making their way south from the capital and there is an army of foreign and local volunteers helping ensure the aid goes to those who need it.
"I waited some time for help," said Lakshmi, clutching her 3-year-old daughter to her hip as she waited to be given a "survival pack" of household goods and food at a camp at a Catholic Church school in Galle.
"But now I am happy. I will take these and go back to my village. I have lost my husband, but I still need to look after my children. We will all help each other."