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After the tsunami, a saving grace
Sacramento Business Journal
January 21, 2005

"Hello?" says Eddie Maalouf, picking up his phone after a few rings. He sounds gravelly voiced and half awake.

It was 4:45 p.m. here at the office on Jan. 10, and I had just called Eddie on his cell phone. He's in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where it's 7:45 the next morning, Jan 11. He's there on assignment for PACSAT, the Sacramento TV satellite uplink company. Eddie and some other news people have been holed up in a condo, using PACSAT's portable satellite dish to transmit ABC News reports from the tsunami-ravaged island.

Over the years, Eddie has seen no shortage of carnage while working on location in many of the world's violently disputed territories -- Sarajevo, Afghanistan and Haiti, to name a few.

But when I ask him what he's seeing in Banda Aceh after being there for five days, he searches for words. Then they spill out.

"It's very difficult to describe," he says. "You don't comprehend the vastness of this disaster until you actually look at it.

"Half the island was wiped out by water," he says. "As far as the eye can see is rubble, bodies and destruction. Even wars with shelling and shooting haven't had this severity of destruction. They got hit the worst here. A hundred thousand people died and 30,000 to 40,000 are rotting away. It's very difficult to explain."

He keeps trying.

"They don't seem to have the manpower, equipment or resources to dig out these bodies and do something with them. The water came in about 5 kilometers from the ocean, that's a long way. It wiped everything in its path. I can't even describe it, it's like a Hiroshima happened in three, four, five different countries."

Eddie has seen rescue workers picking through rubble. Finding anything is a dicey venture. "There are debris piles 10 to 20 feet high. You can't dig into them by hand," he says.

The day before, on a shoot with a news crew, he saw a dead body 20 feet from where they worked. He has seen lifeless dogs, cats and even a drowned monkey.

For survivors, the conditions at Banda Aceh depend on whatever supplies come in.

Eddie and other newsmen snooze in sleeping bags on cots, or on the floor of the rented condo.

"There are mosquitoes, it's hot and humid and there's torrential rain all the time," he says. "Because of the dislocation from the earthquake, it's difficult to find any kind of food. We've literally been eating out of cans; tuna, sardines, crackers, boiled eggs, whatever is flown in."

Water supplies are polluted, so people use only bottled water for drinking, washing dishes and brushing teeth.

And disease is in the air. When he and other newsmen go outside, they wear particle masks.

He got a tetanus shot before he came.

"If you get a cut here, now, without a tetanus shot, the only solution is amputation, there's not even a choice," he says. Cholera is another risk. "These are not good working conditions."

After wishing him well, I hang up. But Eddie's descriptions stay in my head like a depressing documentary on the world's worst natural disasters.

While this tsunami appears to be the biggest natural disaster in modern history, violent tantrums of nature regularly pop up somewhere on the globe: mud slides, landslides, avalanches, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires. Mother Nature is an equalopportunity plunderer of the rich, poor, old and young. If you can't get out of her way, good luck.

Disaster survivors could be called lucky to be alive, but they aren't lucky when they lose loved ones, their homes, their possessions.

If there is any redemption in the wake of natural disasters, it can be found in the good it brings out in people. In this case it's the massive global response to relieve the tsunami victims.

Back home late last Monday night after more than two weeks in Indonesia, Eddie says the aid has delivered significant relief, despite efforts by the Indonesian government to curb assistance to militant separatists in Banda Aceh. Helicopter drops of food to areas cordoned off by the local government have mostly gotten around those restraints, he adds.

"Just about any relief effort you can think of is there," he says. "We were joking that stars without shame were probably going to start showing up."

Boosted by celebrities or not, the relief effort shows that the people of the world haven't stood by. They're helping all survivors, no matter their beliefs. They're showing the best side of humankind.