"We are in the hands of Jehovah, not Nebuchadnezzar," Charles Spurgeon wrote his congregation from his sickbed a century ago. "Noah's flood rose not an inch higher than God's decree allowed," he added. "Nothing great or small escapes the hand of Him who numbers the hairs of our head, and keeps the paths of our feet. . . . The wind is tempered to the shorn lamb . . . the load is fitted to the weak shoulder . . . the knife of the heavenly Surgeon never cuts deeper than is absolutely necessary."
But then a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rumbled four miles beneath a Southeast Asian sea, waking a wall of water that within seven hours swept the Indian Ocean from Malaysia to Mombasa; swallowed coastal inhabitants by the tens of thousands, from lowly fishermen to luxury-class beach frolickers; raised the ocean's table by nearly a foot as far away as San Diego, and-before it ended-caused the very Earth to wobble on its axis, to lose a fraction of a second and to force global positioning satellites into recalibration. The words of Spurgeon are as surely true as they are sorely tested in the largest natural disaster in recorded history.
The tsunami of 2004 provokes suffering in antediluvian proportions. Its aftermath yields survival tales that might astonish Jonah. When 23-year-old Rizal Sapura was plucked alive eight days after the 7:58 a.m. Dec. 26 quake, floating 100 miles from where he first was pitched into the sea, could anyone muster more astonishment? The Indonesian was one minute cleaning a mosque in Banda Aceh and the next washed out on a bed of tree wreckage. He survived on coconuts and rainwater until a Malaysian cargo ship, returning to its home port from South Africa, crossed his path in the vast Indian Ocean and rescued him.
If most history is homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man), the days following the Christmas cataclysm were about natura homini lupus. Death tolls climbed even into the second post-disaster week. Would they top 160,000? 180,000? 200,000? Fears mounted that post-disaster deaths from contaminated water, homelessness, wreckage, and general deprivation might equal those claimed in the tidal wave. Relief workers and rescue teams had to turn their backs to the sea and face the survivors. World Health Organization officials estimate that 3 million to 5 million people are lacking basic food and shelter.
At the behest of the G-8 nations, government coffers opened in a bidding war of compassion. First Japan pledged $500 million to relief efforts, followed by the U.S. government at $350 million, the European Union at $202 million, and Norway at $180 million. Canada pledged $66 million and China offered $60 million. Then Australia stepped in on Jan. 5 with a $765 million pledge of grants and loans-sending public donations worldwide over the $3 billion mark. Those funds, and more, will be needed to right the region. Meantime, private efforts and local relief convoys are essential to handing the cup of water that's needed today.
In Chennai, Sam and Prema Sunder arrived to survey an apocalyptic landscape one hour after the tidal wave gobbled the second-largest beach in the world. The couple lives only a few miles from the coast in Tamil Nadu's state capital, known until recently as Madras. They work with local churches and in low-lying neighborhoods as part of a child outreach and charity ministry. The Sunders soon discovered that one familiar church was gone, swept away just as Sunday morning service was underway. Only the organist survived.
At first Mr. Sunder believed Chennai's death toll to be "perhaps in the hundreds," but it now stands at roughly 5,000. The country's death toll hovers at 10,000, with over 5,000 missing. At Nagapattinam Mr. Sunder and his wife were on hand when many of the 2,500 dead bodies there were discovered. Mr. Sunder reported by cell phone that the number of homeless in the area might top 10,000. The Sunders spent the week after disaster struck handing out blankets and bottled water to more than 300 families. But growing frustration with India's handling of the disaster only compounded his anguish.
"The government has announced that they have 'everything under control' and 'will not be looking at foreign aid in this hour of crisis,'" Mr. Sunder said. "Then the Foreign Minister came on television announcing the government may impose a 1 percent tax to 'harness funds for relief.' The government is embarrassed by their slow response and too prideful to accept outside help."
Indians are widely critical of their government for refusing outside help, but officials-resistant to outside aid since colonial times and self-conscious about India's position as an emerging technological and manufacturing giant-steadfastly refuse outside donations. Instead they have relied on the military. Thousands of troops, dozens of helicopters, aircraft, and ships have evacuated some 650,000 people and dropped food packets in affected areas. The Indian government is providing millions in aid to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
But the self-contained effort is far from perfect. Mr. Sunder said government agents announced they would distribute "survival packets" along Tamil Nadu's coastline but cordoned off villages, including hard-hit Nagapattinam-preventing even Red Cross workers and local charity organizations from entering to assist in other ways. Some police blocked photojournalists from taking pictures. Mr. Sunder went anyway, using his status as a local to bypass the authorities. He and his wife set up a relief tent just outside the barriers. "When I would come upon a man or woman looking lost or dazed I would ask, 'Did you lose your home or your family?' When they told me, 'Sir, I lost everything,' I would point to the relief tent and say, 'Go there. You will find food, water, and other things you will need.'" Next Mr. Sunder plans to provide fishing nets and small boats to help fishermen recover their livelihoods.
Convoys loaded with food, water, cooking utensils, sleeping mats, and sanitary supplies rolled out from the offices of the National Christian Evangelical Association of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) just hours after general secretary Godfrey Yogarajah wrote: "The destruction is indescribable, there is deep sorrow, shock and despair and fear among the people."
Sri Lanka's death toll stands at over 30,000-second-highest after Indonesia-and its homeless number near 1 million. Rescue and restoration efforts are hampered by politics. Uncleared landmines float in the fetid backwash, a reminder of the country's 20-year running civil war. Before the disaster, militant Buddhism was on the rise; 200 churches were attacked. Mr. Yogarajah, whose group represents more than 200,000 evangelical Christians, made a plea for "medicines, doctors and medical teams, drinking water, food, clothing, and shelter" but acknowledged that many roads remain impassable and train lines damaged. Good news in the crisis: Sri Lanka's feared Tamil Tigers, boasting one of the oldest and best-financed suicide terror squads in the world, have laid aside grievances with the government-even sharing office space-to repair the island nation.
Attention to the highly publicized tourist losses in Thailand has overshadowed sweeping tragedies for many local Thai villages, according to Andrew Dircks, vicar of Christ Church, Bangkok. Mr. Dircks visited Phuket last week after spending many hours consoling foreign survivors from the resort area, mostly Westerners on a holiday, who showed up in Bangkok's hospitals.
In all, 21 European countries report people dead or missing, mainly in Thailand. Swedish officials believe their death toll could exceed 1,000; Germany has confirmed 60 dead in Thailand and more than 1,000 missing. Norway reports at least 21 dead and 500 missing. With many bodies washed out to sea or badly decomposed, the task of identifying remains-particularly across international lines and diplomatic channels-is increasingly improbable.
That said, Mr. Dircks was unprepared for the complete devastation to local rural villages along the way to the resorts. In many areas, he said, "substantial portions of the missing are not found yet. They are in jungles, mangroves, or washed out to sea."
At one village of 107 homes, "all the houses are gone and only about one-fourth of the people are alive," Mr. Dircks told WORLD after his return to Bangkok. In Phuket a new preschool opened on Christmas Day and was rubble the day after. To understand the devastation not only in Thailand but also around the Indian Ocean, he said, "I multiply whatever I see by 10,000."
As in other hard-hit areas, aid (clothing especially) is readily available-particularly for the tourist spots-but hard to distribute. The government, according to Mr. Dircks, wants to put tourism on its feet as soon as possible. That leaves other areas "very substantially ignored," he said-and prompted his congregation to adopt several villages, rebuilding up to 300 houses using local technology and local, Thai-speaking volunteers. Members of the church-a mixture of Thai-speaking and English-speaking congregants dating back to 1861-are committed to rebuilding every home. "But of course we won't need to reconstruct all the houses because there are no longer so many people in these areas," he said.
Indonesia's separatist elements declared a ceasefire to ease relief efforts. But it will take more than internecine peace to heal the country, where at least 94,000 perished. "Supplies are plentiful," reported Kie Eng Go, project coordinator for Jubilee Campaign, from Sumatra last week. "The challenge is deploying them and coordinating volunteers." Not a relief agency per se, the group finds itself distributing aid after establishing a network five years ago to monitor religious liberty and assist children orphaned by Muslim-Christian conflict. Meanwhile, the U.S. military dominates relief efforts, distributing most of its initial half-million tons of relief supplies to Sumatra via the USS Abraham Lincoln stationed just offshore.
Aceh Province, at the devastated western tip of Sumatra, is the only province in Indonesia to enforce Shariah law. All women in its urban areas are required to wear Islamic coverings. Aceh's militant Sunnis are largely responsible for exporting Islam throughout the archipelago after its port became a stopover for shipbound pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Less than 300 Christians live in Aceh out of a pre-tsunami population of 3.5 million.
As Malaysian lawyer Min Choon Lee wrote: "What comes to my mind immediately is that many of the countries affected were countries hostile to the gospel and God's people. What we should hope for is that this crisis will bring people together in the common sharing of grief." The attorney noted, "I personally desire to see the church in affected countries play a leading role to console, heal, clothe, feed, and house their fellow citizens. This will be a living testimony of Christ's injunction to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors."
-with reporting by Greg Dabel