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The latest from our emergency response in Mentawai Islands

Indonesia, November 1, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Delivering critical supplies to tsunami survivors. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps
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    Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Elsa Sago and his wife Sri lost their two-year-old daughter Evelyn to the tsunami. Photo: Julisa Tambunan/Mercy Corps

Let me start with thanking everyone at home and elsewhere who has supported us by texts, emails or even comments on Facebook and Twitter. Those words of support are among the few things I could remember when we were at the sea this afternoon, trying to beat the crashing four-meter waves and stormy weather with our small, small boat.

Our team of four were sailing back to Mercy Corps’ base camp after distributing critical supplies to the tsunami survivors in the remote area of North Pagai, Mentawai Islands, where the most disaster-affected communities are located. It took us two hours by boat crossing the stormy Indian Ocean to get there from our base in Sikakap.

When we got back to our camp, all four of us soaking wet and hands are trembling from cold and fear, my phone beeped. The phone signal was alive again. It was a text from Erynn Carter, the West Sumatera Program Director, saying “Big big storm is coming. Confirm this to team — your lives are more important than distribution.” I was supposed to receive that in the morning, but a signal problem got in the way.

The problem of our emergency response this time lies at the tough geographical area and unfriendly weather —storms come and go. Relief goods are overloaded in Sikakap from the government and many organizations, yet distributions cannot get very far. Remote areas remain untouched, except some that have received assistance from the navy. Many ships that have tried to get there have had to head back or have flipped over due to the storms. So we’re kinda glad we were able to do it and safely get back.

Sabeugguggung, the village that we visited this morning, was devastated by the tsunami. On the evening of October 25th, 15-meter waves swept away all houses and left nothing. Half of the inhabitants of the area lost their lives and other half are displaced. The total population of the village before the tsunami was 237 people — now there are only 118 people left. Many fled to a nearby island, and around 30 people are staying in a displacement camp.

In that camp, I talked to Elsa Sago — a man in his late 30s, who lived in a house by the beach with his wife and a two-year-old daughter. Yesterday, he found his daughter’s body in a wreck of trees and stones after days of missing.

“I held her tight when the wave came, but my head hit wood and then I passed out, so she slipped off my hand. When I woke up, she’s nowhere to be found,” he said. And then he continued, “She could have been saved. She was surviving for days. But help has been slow to arrive.”

What I saw next was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. While I was talking to Elsa, his wife Sri came back to the island after days at the emergency hospital in other island. She rushed to her husband crying and calling their daughter’s name. “Evelyn, where’s Evelyn?” And then Elsa took her hand and walked her to the place where Evelyn was buried. Then she fell to the ground with what was left from Evelyn — a pink-colored little backpack, in her hand. I was crushed.

We're here doing our best. Mercy Corps started to distribute non food items to survivors in these tsunami-stricken islands just a few days after the disaster. We are sending in more people tomorrow, including emergency response veteran Richard Jacquot from Washington D.C.

It’s almost midnight here now and it’s still raining outside. According to the news, an even bigger storm is coming tomorrow. We will be betting our luck again — but whatever we're able to do will be well worth it.