Going by a news paper article about a forth coming cyclone, Sarvodaya carried out a disaster management briefing at the end of November at the monthly district coordinators meeting, with the help of an officer from the Department of Meteorology. Due to this pre-meditated exercise Sarvodaya was in a very strong position to handle the disaster, hours after the tsunami struck morning of 26.12.2004. Sarvodaya deployed its entire available staff at the Headquarters and as many as possible in the field to deal with the devastation caused by the tsunami, ignoring nearly all of its day to day regular activities both in the field and at the Headquarters. For about a week, normal Sarvodaya work came to a virtual standstill. Many volunteers assisted in this effort and assistance was also forthcoming from the private sector and other agencies.
Sri Lanka’s coastal areas were the hardest hit. The most affected are the poorest of the poor who live very close to the beach, often sandwiched in-between the sand and the train tracks or road. The proximity to the coastline and the vulnerability of their wooden huts left thousands of people dead and large numbers homeless without access to even the most basic necessities. Although exact numbers are not available yet, women and children are bearing the brunt of the disaster.
The Eastern, Northeastern and Southern side of the island were the most affected. Many areas on the Eastern Coast were very remote and inaccessible and information was scarce. The cities of Matara, Hambantota and Galle on the Western side were very heavily affected as well. Coastal roads and train lines have been destroyed and it was initially virtually impossible to physically reach the most affected areas.
Communication was difficult and getting an accurate assessment of the devastation’s extent was impossible. Land phone lines and even mobile phone connections were virtually non-existent in many parts of the country and the electricity supply had been cut off. Even police and rescue teams could not reach many affected areas. Some police stations and security buildings were also destroyed. Rumours and misinformation became rampant.
Despite these challenges the Sarvodaya response was swift and systematic. As soon as the news of the disaster reached the Sarvodaya headquarters in Moratuwa on Sunday December 26 around 10.30 a.m., a special Disaster Management Operations Centre was set up and began to receive reports from the Sarvodaya district offices in the affected areas. Staff members and volunteers from non-affected Sarvodaya Districts and Divisional Centres were sent to affected areas.