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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-HACKETT Jan-11-2005 (630 words) With photos. xxxi

CRS president, cardinal describe tsunami devastation in Sri Lanka

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- While meeting in the destroyed home of a Sri Lankan fisherman, Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, said his eyes became transfixed on a clock hanging on the home's lone remaining wall.

It read "9:33."

It was that time in the morning Dec. 26 that a series of waves crushed through Sri Lanka's southern tip, killing more than 30,000 people.

Hackett was in Sri Lanka with Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington to view firsthand the extent of the damage caused by the tsunamis.

"There was nothing left of his house; we sat on a concrete slab as we listened to his story," Hackett told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Jan. 11 from Galle, Sri Lanka. CRS is the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.

A trauma specialist provided the man's young children with coloring books so that they could describe their ordeal. The children showed their paintings to Hackett and the cardinal.

"Some painted their house, some painted the wave covering their house," Hackett said. "But there were no people in the painting."

Hackett said the reconstruction of Sri Lanka and other countries affected by the tsunamis would be a "multimillion dollar, long-term" effort, but treating the mental and psychological damage caused by the disaster might take longer.

"These people are so traumatized by what happened," he said.

In a separate phone interview with the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick told of visiting a church Jan. 11 where, on the morning of the disaster, a priest had been distributing Communion at Mass. Then the tsunami hit, and suddenly the surging tide swept a car through the church's entrance and down the center aisle.

"A nun holding the ciborium was carried away" and later found dead, he said.

Many of the 30,000 people killed by tsunamis in Sri Lanka were children. Cardinal McCarrick said Dr. Michael Finegan, lead psychologist for the Maryland State Police, was volunteering his time in Sri Lanka, "trying to help children deal with the trauma."

Hackett described a grim scene in traveling from Colombo, the nation's capital, to the disaster sites.

"Along the road from Colombo to Galle we saw entire villages leveled. These homes weren't damaged; they were leveled. It was as if a bulldozer drove right through them," he told CNS.

He said hundreds of people remained homeless. About 30 families were still residing at the cathedral in Galle; some 400 families stayed there in the tsunamis' immediate aftermath.

Hackett said survivors told him that a series of three waves swept through their region; each wave was larger and claimed more lives.

Hackett said he was impressed by the response of Sri Lankans in helping their fellow countrymen.

"We were not the first to respond to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans were the first to respond to Sri Lanka. They responded with food, with clothing and with money," he said.

Cardinal McCarrick also praised the Sri Lankans.

"The Sri Lankan people -- they impress you by their own strength, their courage, their resilience," he said.

On Jan. 11, Hackett and the cardinal met with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who thanked them for the response of the U.S. church.

Cardinal McCarrick said the prime minister expressed concern that the nation's fishing industry is at a standstill in the aftermath of the tsunamis. The boats of many fishermen were smashed, and many Sri Lankans do not want to consume fish now, out of fear that the fish are eating people killed by the waves, he said.

CRS has pledged $25 million for tsunami relief and has personnel on the ground in all 12 affected countries.

- - -

Contributing to this story was Mark Zimmermann.


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