Tsunami Survivors Empathize
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – For Nimal Premasiri, televised images of water surging into New Orleans (search) triggered painful memories. He lost his wife and daughter just eight months ago when waves "big as elephants" crashed into a packed commuter train in Sri Lanka.
"God has made us equals in birth, life and death," Premasiri, 51, said Wednesday.
Though the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami was far more deadly than the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina (search), many in Asian nations hardest hit by the killer waves — from Indonesia to Thailand and Sri Lanka — felt acute sympathy with Katrina's victims.
The hurricane flooded large parts of New Orleans and several other areas along the Gulf Coast (search), killing hundreds. Two levees also broke in New Orleans, spilling water into the streets and swamping the below-sea-level city.
Raju Danny, 26, who lost his wife to raging tsunami torrents in Indonesia, said he "felt tears welling up when I saw that so many people had died."
"I would like to help, but all I have is my prayers," the waiter said during a break from serving rice and fried chicken to customers in the seaside town of Banda Aceh.
More than 200,000 people were killed or missing after the tsunami, inspiring a massive international emergency response and a huge worldwide fund-raising drive.
People in Indonesia's Aceh province, which lost a staggering 130,000 people, recalled in particular the massive humanitarian effort undertaken by the U.S. military following the disaster.
Within days, U.S. choppers were dropping off water and emergency supplies to stranded villagers and collecting injured survivors.
"America helped us a lot, and they were genuine too," said Reza Saputra, a 19-year-old student. "One of their helicopters even crashed here."
In Sri Lanka, where the tsunami killed 31,000 and left tens of thousands homeless, several people also said pictures of the devastation caused by Katrina brought back vivid memories.
"When I see the images from Katrina, I can easily identify," said Chulie de Silva, a World Bank executive who lost her brother in the tsunami. "We were just (like) them on Dec. 26. At least they had warning; we had none."
"The lives of men, women, children were snuffed out in a few seconds," she said, recalling the look of agony on people's faces as the waves swept them away, and later, the stench of death.
"My brother lay on his back, no shirt, his handsome face peaceful," she said. "I pray and hope not many sisters" in the United States will suffer in the same way.
Many in India, where some 10,700 people died, also felt the pain caused by events unfolding a half a world away, said Barry Mackey, regional program manager in New Delhi for Habitat for Humanity, an international housing charity based in Americus, Ga.
"The people here are definitely watching news of Katrina, and since they had to respond to the tsunami just last year, they do sympathize with Katrina's victims," he said, predicting their sorrow would only magnify as the real death toll emerged.
But he said he did not think the disaster would mean a loss of promised funds for tsunami reconstruction in the island nation.
"We have loyal donors and the program will not suffer," he said.
Thailand saw some 7,000 dead or missing, including many foreign vacationers.
Yowalak Thiarachow, the country's program manager for the British humanitarian agency Oxfam, said relief workers and residents "saw the pictures of people being evacuated (in New Orleans) and we couldn't believe our eyes."
Though many here see the United States as more advanced, the devastation in New Orleans "shows Thai people and Americans are in the same boat," she said.
Still, Thiarachow noted, U.S. authorities are more capable when it comes to providing emergency assistance, so many victims will get needed help.
Prattana Nuntaratpun, who works for a Thai TV station, she had not heard of any of the station's viewers calling in to donate or write letters to people affected by Katrina.
"Thai people wouldn't react that way. It's too far from us," she said. "People probably aren't thinking as far as Katrina," she said.