Thursday, March 17, 2011

Post Tsunami Stress Disorder (REPRINT)

The tsunami disasters unfolding in Japan are forcing me to revisit my experience with tsunami relief work in Chile last year. Below is a "web reprint" of an article I wrote for The Surfer's Path magazine. (Issue #79, August-September 2010) I can barely fathom what's going on in Japan because I know it's thousands of times worse than what we had in Chile, and Chile was difficult enough! All my love and prayers for the people in Japan. 

Post Tsunami Stress Disorder: finding oneself amidst fear and hope in Chile’s coastal devastation. 

By Josh Berry

Rushing to Chile immediately after the 8.8 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the country’s coastline on February 27, 2010, on a mission to distribute water filters and medical attention for survivors at the epicenter’s most devastated coastline, Save The Waves Coalition’s environmental director Josh Berry recounts his surreal, traumatic and profoundly moving experience on the still-trembling shores of coastal Chile.

I haven’t even gotten to the earthquake zone and I’m already freaking out. Fresh off the airplane I shaved my head after being stuck in traffic hell in the brutal Santiago sun – golden surfer locks ruthlessly transformed into militaristic brownish stubble by my firefighter friend El Diplomatico and his trusty, rusty hair clippers. It’s fitting for our emergency mission bringing water filters and medical aid to the most stricken survivors in post-tsunami Chile. For now it’s merely too hot in Santiago as the murderous sun burns stark through an ozone-depleted sky. I miss the ocean already, but this time the ocean bit back hard with a tsunami of biblical proportions. Bienvenido a Santiago, gringo.

The anonymous generosity of countless individuals, foundations, and surf industry companies has brought us back to Chile. Less than 3 days after the earthquake we rallied hundreds of donations, formed an informal partnership with Waves for Water to distribute clean water filters to tsunami survivors, and established another partnership to bring medical professionals from REACT Worldwide and Operation Rainbow directly to the disaster area. Tons of supplies are being donated and shipped to Chile on behalf of Save The Waves to distribute and help wherever it’s needed. And the need is deep - my shock at the magnitude of the problem, and the meaning of everyone’s incredibly humane response, is giving me deep wells of inspiration and energy to get things done, quickly and without complaint, for the courageous people of coastal Chile who desperately need help.

Before moving back closer to home in California last year, I spent over 7 years in Chile working as an advocate for water quality issues around surf spots. As fate would have it, exactly one year after I left Chile, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the same area that I had spent years working and surfing, precisely where Save The Waves Coalition has invested so much time and resources fighting development, sewage, forestry and coal pollution.

On February 27, 2010, this area was clobbered by the earth’s most violent force: an earthquake and tsunami one-two wallop. Information is sparse but reports slowly filter in, of three tsunami waves of 10, 15 and 30 feet tall hitting several hundred miles of coastline. As soon as I learned of the catastrophe I booked a flight from the USA with El Diplomatico who also loves Chile, and somehow we made it into the country. In spite of 90% of flights being cancelled due to the widespread destruction of infrastructure, we managed to sweet-talk our way into beloved Chile and landed in Santiago 5 days after the disaster struck.

So we’ve made it back to Chile and here we are, tripping out in Santiago where life seems to be going on as if nothing has happened. We cross a few cracked highways and the airport is mostly closed, but the incessant city life is business as usual. What the fuck do we do now?! A huge natural disaster has devastated hundreds of miles of coastline and after a day of purchasing truckloads of supplies in the city we need to get to the coastal epicenter. We have a plan to distribute water filters, supplies and medical aid in refugee camps. But first we must survive the mean streets and insane traffic of Santiago. The doctors we’ve agreed to guide into the epicenter aren’t in the country yet and who knows when they’ll arrive.

We’ve also joined forces with big wave surfers Ramón Navarro, Greg Long and Kohl Christensen, who were all surfing the Todos Santos big wave contest when the earthquake hit Chile and who also heeded the overwhelming urge to get to Chile, pronto, and do whatever it takes to help. They arrive two days after and hit the ground running – with El Diplomatico I head further south to the epicenter, while the big wave team sprints to Pichilemu and Ramón’s hometown. Our plan is to meet halfway after distributing help in our respective coastal zones.

Waves for Water got us a “bro-deal” on 1,000 simple yet highly effective water filters for emergency use in disaster areas. The filters are already proving their worth in Haiti where “W4W” distributed thousands of them to the millions of homeless. After a massive natural disaster, water and shelter are two very limited and valuable resources. We know what we have to do, and although the mission is simple we know it’s not going to be easy.

This is crazy. The only reason I’m here is because of love. I love this country and I know the epicenter zone as well as anyone. And others’ love for Chile has helped us get here, too, and it’s supremely humbling to read the long list of anonymous strangers who only want to help. In this type of hugely devastating natural disaster, that’s enough for a place that needs all the support it can get. By the time we leave Santiago we’ve already managed to get several truckloads of supplies out ahead of us, on their way to numerous coastal surf towns that took the brunt of the tsunami hit. I fear what lies ahead, but I know it’s nothing compared to what my Chilean friends are already facing at the epicenter – it’s survival and recovery at our most basic level. It’s a Herculean effort that easily brings out the best of humanity: help your neighbor.   

My face starts breaking out in the worst acne I’ve had since I was 14 and blind with hormones. It’s a combination of work stress - it took us days of non-stop travel to reach post-tsunami Chile in spite of the officially closed international airport and that’s just the beginning of the logistics nightmares – plus the pressure of the searing late summer heat, and the dreadful anticipation of our impending immersion in complete, heart-breaking destruction at a beloved stretch of coastal Chile.

The drive towards the epicenter is uneventful and underwhelming – a few collapsed bridges, damaged rooftops and cracks in the road. This is all very photogenic and newsworthy but it’s not why we’re here. The worst is yet to come. Our first real taste of the harsh tsunami-induced reality is at the coast near our destination: in Pelluhue, a fishing village and summer tourist town, we drive through 2 kilometers suffering from a direct tsunami hit. The equivalent of over 50 square blocks is completely erased – nothing is left but piles of broken beams, crumpled tin roofs, crushed cars, and chunks of cement foundations scattered where entire neighborhoods once stood. The cars are unrecognizable except for a tire or exhaust pipe poking out of a crumpled mass of steel. Entire homes are gone, sometimes leaving nothing but the portion of a broken brick wall and a bathtub standing oddly alone amidst sand and torn-up trees. Everything swept away by the mammoth forces of enraged water. Nature’s destructive force is unbelievable even when facing it as a direct witness.

At the coast the devastation is crushing – literally, emotionally and physically. My friends and I are speechless – there’s nothing to do but put our heads down, get to work, and quietly ponder a strange mantra: oh my god… oh my god… oh my god. What happened?

So this is the aftermath of a tsunami. Up until now I’ve only been able to wonder and scratch my head about the unbelievable wrath it entails. Words cannot do it justice. My stomach churns from what I see, but we’re also strangely energized to get things done and help as much as possible. Sleep is secondary. This is a unique and meaningful opportunity to truly help other humans in the time of their direst need. Shell-shocked people wander about in a daze. Everything helps, and everywhere I look there’s something positive to be done: sweep up debris, hug a stranger, make someone smile, give away something useful to someone who has lost everything.

Training locals in how to build and use the water filter is incredibly simple yet very helpful: most people who’ve fled the tsunami zone don’t have a reliable source of clean water. They are empowered and energized to assemble something that guarantees them a level of health that is at times unobtainable in the difficult conditions of a natural disaster. My fear and anxiety lessens with every filter we build, and my peace grows with every person we train to build their own community’s filters. We’re also healing ourselves as we complete our mission to help the local community.

Entire towns have fled the shoreline, terrified by what the tsunami did to their tranquil lives. Dozens of refugee camps have sprung up in the hills above the coast here. We travel slowly but surely to many of these camps, with filters, doctors, and supplies. But we’re learning that much of what we have to give is immaterial: just showing up is a form of granting hope and inspiration for people to stand up, get well and dust themselves off. 

The earthquake and tsunami double-whammy is nature’s ultimate knockout punch. Oddly enough, the tsunami news has barely reached international media networks. But Chilean news is all over it, and during our first weekend at the epicenter there are hundreds of Chilean volunteers pouring in to offer help at cleaning up, rebuilding, and restoring energies for the coastal communities. We meet dozens of professionals coming from the city to offer their services. The destruction is so vast that it will take many months of concerted volunteer effort to rebuild the hundreds of miles of coastline that are reeling from the blow.

The Chilean military is the only organization that is prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. Even so, during the first few days after the earthquake the military was barely able to deploy because they, too, had to dig themselves out and recover before they could help their country. At first they had the unsavory and well-publicized job of restoring order, arresting looters, and enforcing a curfew. But it’s a week after the earthquake and the military is doing an incredible job of rebuilding, cleaning up, and giving people hope. Unarmed platoons of young soldiers march down the streets singing songs as they escort trucks full of tsunami debris. Military brass bands roam the larger towns playing live renditions of their unique blend of inspirational tunes. And hundreds of energetic young soldiers swarm over the landscape with wheelbarrows, tractors, shovels and dump trucks. Everyone that isn’t shell-shocked is working and it’s inspiring.

But it’s only a week after and the shell shock continues to be as devastating as the tsunami was. First, an earthquake of massive shaking forces total system collapse. Then, a giant ocean wave of steamrolling destruction sweeps the debris into chaotic mountains of junk. And finally, endless set waves of emotional trauma sweep the land. Every day we feel huge aftershocks registering up to 7.5 on the richter scale, sending everyone into a panic.

Our doctors finally arrive, and they’re going full-time from awakening in the pre-dawn until falling into bed at midnight. Burn victims. Shell-shocked kids. Freaked-out parents. Fishermen wandering the streets, crying, who have lost everything: the wave took the boat, nets, wetsuits, truck, knives, bait and more. Working class people have lost their jobs along with all their belongings, because industry and economy have slowed to a crawl. But everyone has time to rebuild and recover. 

One day my doctor friends from Santiago who specialize in healing emotional trauma take an ambulance into the remotest hills of the epicenter. A middle-aged woman has been sitting in a chair, trapped for two weeks inside her head in her own home. She is unable to move – she is completely terrified from the 2-minute-long earthquake and the numerous aftershocks. She won’t get up and she won’t leave the house due to the emotional trauma that’s taken over her body and mind. Her family, friends and neighbors don’t know what to do.

So the doctors speak with the paralyzed woman for over an hour, coaxing her to open up about the experience. She weeps and cries and thumps her chest. It’s cathartic and healing. The doctors massage her legs and encourage her to stand up. She stands, and step-by-step with the coaxing of the doctors, she slowly makes it to the front door of her home to survey her street. Then, with friends and family surrounding her she tearfully steps out the door to walk down her street for the first time in weeks. Everyone in the neighborhood thinks it’s a miracle and they send the doctors home with countless blessings, gifts of garden fresh vegetables, yerba mate, homemade woolen knittings, and pleas for them to return and visit soon.

As a result of this catastrophe Save The Waves Coalition is a better version of its former self: the larger international community chose us to coordinate a multi-agency effort to support the recovery of a beloved surfing coastline. We are not alone and the list of supporters is too long to mention here. This mission will take years as we commit our resources to reconstruction projects, small scholarships for local students, organic educational gardens, and material support for local artisan fishermen to get back to work. But we’re learning, and inspired by the locals around us. Their recovery and their courageousness are incredible and are driving this grassroots recovery. Sergio “Pocha” Salas, the first surfer in Constitución who lost everything to the disaster, is a fireball of nonstop energy as he takes our water filter mission to new heights in his ruined city. His example of selfless action is repeated in every town where we stop to help: offered a spark, the locals turn it into a bonfire of inspiration and cheer.

We’re still working with shaking ground all around. We stop to look up, make sure nothing is falling on our heads, then put our heads back down to focus on the work before us. This brings out the collective unconscious of millions of years of humans being terrorized by, coping with, and surviving calamitous earth tremors and natural disasters. To stand up, dust off, and survive with our neighbors is a natural condition carved into our DNA. And we’re becoming better humans as a result: more humane, more humble, and more aware of the great big picture drawn by our cosmos, the universe and shifting tectonic plates. The only constant is change: the earth changes, we adapt, we change into better versions of our former selves as we help our friends, our neighbors and ourselves survive the fear and rise up from the ashes. Ultimately, we’ve survived the biggest wave that nature can throw at us and it’s brought us closer together. We look forward to the future as we work tirelessly in the present.

About the author: Raised the son of a firewood cutter and a bush-walking mystic in the coastal wilds of northern California, Josh is presently on a break from environmental nonprofit work to build a cabin in the woods and grow his own vegetables. 

Delivering water filters & basic supplies for earthquake survivors in Chile.