After the Wave, a New Life

By Bob Paulson   •   April 15, 2005

For generations, the villagers of Anichankuppam, India, have known the ocean. Strong young men and gnarled old men would use 30-foot boats and large nets to catch prawns, jellyfish, mackerel, sardines and other fish. Village women would sell a portion of the day’s catch in local markets and save the rest for their families.

All that changed Dec. 26, when the tsunami came and washed away the only lifestyle the people had ever known in this village on the east coast of India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Not only did the tsunami kill five of the village’s residents, but it also destroyed nearly all of the fishing boats and nets, along with many houses. The houses that still stand are no longer used, for fear that they might collapse.

But perhaps more than anything, the tsunami destroyed the villagers’ familiar relationship with the ocean.

Before, the villagers knew the ocean. They knew what times of year to expect various kinds of fish; they knew how far from shore to cast their nets. Even today, they can stand on the beach, scan the water and tell a visitor, “There are many fish there, about 50 meters off shore.”

But things have changed. The people of Anichankuppam no longer trust the ocean. Before Dec. 26, they had never heard of a tsunami–they never even knew that such a thing existed. No stories had been handed down from parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

Still, on that morning, they sensed that something was wrong with the ocean. It was a Sunday, so not many men were fishing. But those who were fishing were catching strange fish that they had never seen before. One 22-year-old fisherman named Daniel saw the peculiar catch and, believing it to be a sign of impending danger, thought, “Only God can save my family now.”

Daniel and his fellow fishermen headed for shore, but it would be hours before he discovered that his family was indeed safe. Daniel’s 14-year-old brother, Asirvatam, had been playing near the water–but, heeding a strong sense of danger that he believes was God’s leading, he ran inland to safety before the wave hit.

Some people at the beach noticed that the ocean had a different color than usual that morning, but many remained at the beach or in their homes, some of which were just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. Still, nothing could have prepared them for the awful, black wall of water–a wave as high as the treetops–that roared in about 8 a.m.

In the shade of the coconut trees that line the beach, many village women were waiting for fishing boats to return, so the women could sell the fish. Two women, Anchlatchi and Prema, later told how they were sitting and talking with each other when suddenly they looked up and saw the wave. With no time to run, they grabbed a nearby coconut tree and held on as the wave crashed over them. Fishing boats on the sand in front of them were picked up and smashed against the trees all around them. But somehow Anchlatchi and Prema managed to hold on until the water subsided enough for them to run away.

A few meters farther inland, people ran from their houses as they saw the wave approaching. Adults grabbed children by the hand or carried them as they ran. Daniel’s father, Selvanayagam, who also is called Peter, was at church when the wave hit. It didn’t take long for the worshipers to realize that something terrible was happening. Peter and other adults grabbed children, and they, too, ran.

In the chaos, many families were separated. Some, like Peter and Daniel’s, were able to find one another within a few hours; others faced excruciating days of searching for loved ones. Gadhamathy, a mother of five, said that she wept for two days as she tried to locate her children, who range in age from 13 to 24. Eventually, she found all of them, safe. “We thank God for saving our family,” Gadhamathy said. “If we lose all our possessions, people will help us. But only God could save our children.”

When the villagers returned, they found that nearly all of the village’s fishing boats were damaged beyond repair and that their possessions had been swept out of their homes and were nowhere to be found.

The government erected temporary shelters for the people and provided rice and other basic necessities. But two months after the tsunami, the boats still lay broken on the beach, houses still lay in ruins or stood empty, and the people had lost their main sources of food and income.

Some fishermen said that even if they were given new boats and nets, they don’t want to return to the ocean. Others said they will return to fishing, although they will do so with fear. Some feel as if they have no choice. “How can we do another job?” one fisherman asked. “We are illiterate. We have some education, but we know only this job. How can we go to another job?”

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has stepped in to help the people of Anichankuppam. Mr. Graham felt led to help a village in this way, much as BGEA did after another destructive wave hit India’s coast in 1977.

To this end, BGEA, through its World Emergency Fund, has purchased several acres of land a few hundred meters inland from the destroyed village. At this safe location, a new village will be built, complete with houses, a community center that can be used for church meetings, a medical clinic and perhaps a fish-processing center.

Representatives of BGEA met with village officials Feb. 27 to review plans for rebuilding, after which a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the newly purchased land.

Under a canopy that provided shelter from the hot sun, village leaders honored BGEA guests and thanked them for their assistance. Associate Evangelist Robert Cunville addressed the people, saying, “This morning I bring you very warm greetings from two men of God, Billy Graham and Franklin Graham.”

Dr. Cunville, who is from India, told the biblical story of the good Samaritan and said that just as the Samaritan expressed God’s love to the man who had fallen victim to thieves, BGEA had come to express God’s love to those who had fallen victim to the tsunami.

“We’ll never know why the tsunami hit us,” Cunville said. “But we are here to help you, to express to you the love of God. And we are looking forward to many, many months and years to be together. Thank you for the time we spent this morning–we got to know one another better. And I promise you, we’ll get to know you even more.”

Please pray for the people of Anichankuppam and also for BGEA and those working with them to rebuild the village. Although the tsunami washed away possessions, lifestyles and lives, BGEA hopes to demonstrate in a practical way that God’s grace and love through Jesus Christ can bring new life that no wave can ever wash away.