Taking Stock

Subject: Tsunami Trip

From: Carolyn Woo

Date: Tues, 29 Mar 2005 13:39:57–0500

To: Notre Dame Friends




Dean Carolyn Woo was surveying tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia for Catholic Relief Services when an earthquake struck on March 28. The next day, she sent the following e-mail message recounting the experience.


Nothing prepares you for how much damage was brought about by the 90-foot tsunami. In Banda Aceh, a boat was swept up on top of homes.

By now, you have all seen the news on the earthquake that hit the island of Sumatra last night. We were in Medan, on the east coast of the island. I awoke to the room swaying around 11:15 p.m. Moving around in the room was like walking in the galley of an airplane during turbulence. Getting out of the hotel was tough as the lights went out and the hallway was dark. I cannot describe the feeling of relief when Ken Hackett (the president of CRS) ran down the hallway looking for me. I think I was among the last to leave the building. One emergency staircase was covered by wall paneling, and we could not find the door. We did find the other stairway. It was pitch black. One had to stay calm. Neither one of us could see. We finally got the cadence of the stairs—there were eight to each progression. Fortunately, we were only six floors up. By counting out loud, we gave people behind us some sense of the stairs so that they would not accidentally push. I do not know how I moved because my legs felt like jelly. Midway down, the lights came on. The chandeliers in the foyer were swinging like pendulums.

Seeing such great loss, my thoughts turned repeatedly to family and home and how precious they are to all of us.

We went across the street. There was nowhere else to go. The total time of the earthquake was 2-3 minutes. However, every moment was like an eternity. There were people in nightgowns and towels, just like in the movies. I felt how very helpless we were and all we could do was hope that nothing worse happened. I was so very grateful to Ken who had doubled back to get me. I now have an appreciation for a helping hand in ways I never did before.


The earthquake was 8.7 on the Richter scale and 150 miles from us. It was 30 miles deeper in the earth’s core than the one that caused the tsunami. The island of Nias, from the scraps of news we got, suffered from many, many collapsed buildings. The casualty estimates ranged from 300 to 2000. Nias is an island with 97% Christian inhabitants, 30% of these are Catholics. The Catholic priest there was injured—he was on the third floor of a building that collapsed.

Flower petals adorn the site of a mass grave
Chalk art greeted us in Chennai, India.

Most of the CRS staff were up all night fielding phone calls and getting ready for relief. I got first-hand experience of how these efforts come together. It is really an incredible operation. Relief must be the most chaotic, creative and complicated enterprise. The context also changes by the hour. In any case, the relief efforts cannot begin until tomorrow as airplanes and helicopters could not land. By tomorrow, there will be charter planes, medical teams, supplies, etc.

The field work was hard to watch and will take many years to complete. The heat is intense.
Frame for a multi-use facility in Meulaboh where houses, roads, the pier and mosque were all destroyed.

Yesterday morning before the earthquake was spent in Meulaboh, south of Banda Aceh, which is the closest spot to the epicenter of the Dec. 26th quake. I saw poverty and then on top of it the devastation. The island has lost a third of its population, another third is missing, and the final third is displaced. CRS is leading the relief effort here and is greatly respected. The senior staff is collected from around the world and all have deep experience from Sudan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and elsewhere. They have seen the worst. It is like a mini-United Nations with people from Australia, Britain, Germany, Nairobi, America, Benin, France, Philippines, and El Salvador. The local staff is young and mostly Muslim. CRS stresses partnerships and really avoids the type of turf issues that could creep in. Given the sensitive political and religious realities, we walk a fine line.

Relief Workers in Banda Aceh.

We will have to rebuild entire villages (roads, homes, schools, infrastructure, piers, etc.) As I sat in the different briefings with the staff, I am so proud of what they are doing. They are talented, dedicated and understand the big picture. I thought how God commanded us to love, but He did not say take a big banner along, or to love only those who share our religion. They live this message and make it real.

My spirits were raised by meeting vibrant uniform-clad children from Catholic schools in various villages in India.







Blessings, Carolyn

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