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A year after tsunami, rebuilding goes slowly and brings new problems

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka—The world opened its heart a year ago to the victims of a calamitous tsunami, and its generosity can be seen everywhere in places like coastal Sri Lanka.

A drive along the south coast of Sri Lanka underscores how widespread the assistance has been. Signboards announce projects from Norway, Austria, Kuwait, Ireland, Switzerland, Taiwan, Italy and the United States, to name only a smattering. New fishing boats, trucks, temporary shelters and bicycles carry stickers and decals identifying the charitable groups that made the donations.

The aid is helping Sri Lanka and other battered nations move beyond the Indian Ocean tsunami, even if the hearts of many victims are slow to heal. According to the United Nations Development Program, the disaster left 231,452 people dead or missing in 12 countries.

Fisherman M.T. Nilamudeen eats his lunch by a new fiberglass boat that an Irish aid group gave him to replace his destroyed vessel.

"The new boat is better than the old boat," he said. "They gave me a motor, nets, everything." He's received a small new house, too, loaded with free furniture.

Yet the tsunami also took what no amount of generosity can ever replace. "I'm always thinking of my wife and children," he said. The tsunami killed them all.

A year later, heartache coincides with new social problems in Sri Lanka. Huge amounts of aid brought relief, but some regions were overcompensated, sparking resentments. Other areas, gripped by ethnic conflict, still await aid. And even though relief arrived, bureaucratic delays still plague reconstruction, and some funds remain corked up.

The psychological effects of the disaster are also becoming more evident. More women than men died, leaving widowers suffering from depression and struggling to raise children. Along Sri Lanka's south coast, aid has been so abundant that some victims have grown used to handouts, postponing a return to normalcy.

"We created kind of a begging culture, that everything is free," said Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, a consultant to the World Health Organization. "As a Sri Lankan, I feel badly that we may be creating a dependency syndrome."

The tsunami killed 35,322 people in Sri Lanka, according to the UNDP, fewer than the estimated 169,000 dead and missing in Sumatra, the Indonesian island near where the earthquake-driven tsunami originated. Another half-million Sri Lankans lost their homes, and 90 percent of the adults affected lost their livelihoods, making Sri Lanka the second hardest hit country after Indonesia.

It was particularly cruel to the nation's 152,000 fishermen. The disaster wiped out 75 percent of the fishing fleet and killed at least 5,000 fishermen.

"There was heavy competition among (foreign relief groups) to help these fishing communities," said Leslie Joseph, a fisheries consultant with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a Rome-based group. "They wanted to give a boat to every fisherman."

If too little aid creates obvious problems, too much of it can cause difficulties, too.

Boatyards backed up with orders, sending work to new fly-by-night boatyards. Some fishermen complained that the new vessels weren't seaworthy.

More boats were replaced than were destroyed. Former crewmembers on other boats got their own vessels. Relief groups turned over so many new boats that the FAO now warns of the potential to overfish the continental shelf around Sri Lanka.

It all came about because of the world's big-hearted response. The dramatic tsunami, falling a day after Christmas, led to huge fund drives by relief and charitable organizations. Governments, aid agencies, private donors and others pledged more than $13 billion to the affected region.

Along Sri Lanka's eastern and southern shores, the tsunami caused some $2.15 billion in damage, and funds pledged for relief and rebuilding reached $2.95 billion, according to the U.N. Office of the Special Office for Tsunami Recovery. Of that, $853 million came from private groups.

"Ships came. Planeloads came. All of it was very good, but it left in its wake a lot of confusion," said Abeykoon, the health consultant.

Even so, much went well. The government avoided any serious outbreaks of disease. Tent camps went up within weeks, followed by the creation of 54,102 wood-plank transitional houses with tin roofs. The houses are meant to be habitable for up to two years.

If there's a major complaint, it's about the slow pace of building permanent housing. Barely 5,000 permanent new homes have been built of the 78,000 needed.

"It's a step up from a tent, but not much," said Andrew Baker, a regional program manager in this coastal town with Mercy Corps, an international relief organization.

Oxfam International said in a report this month that only one-fifth of the 1.8 million people across the region made homeless by the tsunami will be in permanent homes by the end of this year.

Meantime, a stream of individuals and impromptu relief groups poured in. Christian, Buddhist and Muslim groups worked side by side. Some cut through red tape and gave immediate help. Others wanted to help but had little idea how to do so.

"One person showed up who was a hypnotherapist and wanted to help the traumatized kids," recalled Baker, who was previously in the east coast town of Pottuvil. The hypnotherapist meant well but didn't speak any local language.

Money couldn't be spent fast enough. Still, only about one-third of the committed relief money in Sri Lanka has been spent, the rest bottled up to ensure that it's well-spent. Jealousies have erupted over unequal distribution. As relief segued into development, experts noticed other problems of inequality.

"The people living in shacks on the beach suddenly were getting a nice new house. But the people living in shacks inland are still living in shacks," Baker said. "So there's some effort to incorporate all poor people" into development plans.

A government edict to safeguard coastal dwellers has slowed rebuilding and sparked rumors of a land grab for the rich. Officials declared a buffer zone 330 to 660 feet from the high water line, banning reconstruction of destroyed homes there. It ordered donor-built new communities to be erected inland.

"There were two problems. One, they couldn't find land" inland, said Tony Senewiratne, country representative for Habitat for Humanity, an Atlanta-based housing group. Second, many fishermen need to live near their boats and nets along the coast.

Wrangling over the buffer zone continues, as private groups begin building the 500-square-foot permanent homes for victims. Quality and availability vary widely.

"You get nice homes—and some just the opposite," said Mohemed Fows, who lives in wood-plank temporary housing on the grounds of a mosque, waiting for a permanent home.

"There are (non-governmental organizations) that have built $10,000 houses. It's a bit of a problem. Not everybody can get a house like this," Senewiratne said.

Hambantota, the home of President Mahindra Rajapakse, who was elected in mid-November, has been particularly blessed. The town, on Sri Lanka's southeastern coast, has signed agreements with aid groups to build 5,000 homes but could only identify 1,600 families who needed them.

In contrast, along the eastern coast, "they are still to see one house being built," said Anushika Amarasinghe, program coordinator for Transparency International, an international group that advocates transparency and monitors for corruption.

At Hambantota's 2,005-acre New Town, hundreds of simple homes are going up amid scrub vegetation, few inhabited. Many are basic. Some are nicer.

"I'm not happy with this house," said W. Umbewickrema, a salt vendor who moved in recently. "Before the tsunami, I had a great house."

More spacious homes are going up nearby, with gardens and larger lots, erected by a Taiwan-based Buddhist charity, the Tzu Chi Compassion Relief Foundation.

"We want to give the best," said Danny Lee, a coordinator for the foundation. "We are different. We want quality."

Some experts preach patience, saying expectations for new housing were too high.

"Everybody should be aware that it takes time to rebuild," said Alessandro Pio, the Asian Development Bank's point man in Sri Lanka, noting that the prices of bricks, gravel, sand and labor have risen dramatically.

Tuwan Nizar, a 32-year-old fish vendor, offered his assessment of how Sri Lanka is doing a year after the tsunami.

"We are happy, but not 100 percent happy," he said.

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For more information, the United Nations Development Program has published a new report about its assistance to the tsunami recovery over the past year. To download the report, go to www.undp.org/tsunami/

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051221 TSUNAMI

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