The Scene in Ko Phi Phi
After a week in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand walking though the tsunami-created rubble seems normal. You hardly even see the piles of demolished buildings, the scorched Earth stretches of total destruction, or the debris littered reservoir that they pulled 300 bodies from. You barley hear the pounding of nails, the sawing of wood, or the mixing of cement. You can’t taste the dust kicked up by the still-crumbling buildings or the speeding wheelbarrows.
But still, even after a week, you can smell it. The smell doesn’t come often anymore, not like in the first month when they were finding bones and hair and the streets were covered in garbage. But every now and then you get a whiff of three-month-old death and that’s something that probably never smells normal. On my one day of real manual work, helping demolish a damaged building, the smell got too strong to ignore and someone grabbed a bag and tossed the offending cat corpse into it. There aren’t human bodies here anymore, but cats don’t smell much better.
Two hundred eighty is the number of orphaned cats I heard today. One has taken residence on my porch. No one here is much worried about cats.
Two thousand is the number of people lost to the tsunami on Ko Phi Phi, though eight hundred are still classified, absurdly, as missing. In all of Thailand there are believed to have been 5,000 deaths, making Ko Phi Phi the second hardest area hit.
The wave came at 10:30am. The water had receded a bunch. “One mile,” is a popular estimate though neither the people making the estimate nor the people receiving it can really look out into the water and know what a mile is. It wasn’t all that different than a sudden low tide and most people were too busy getting breakfast or walking through the dense village to notice.
The village is wedged between two beaches and it was this geography that resulted in so many casualties; when the swelling water sent people sprinting away from the first beach they were running straight towards the second one, which was hit moments later by two much larger waves.
The first “wave” on the south-facing beach was more of a swell, like a giant, sudden tide shift it came rising up on shore. “It wasn’t even really that big,” John told me as he worked a cue ball back and forth in his left hand, trying to help the nerves repair. “But it was fucking strong.” John doesn’t remember the wave hitting his bungalow, but he knows it carried him 200 yards inland towards the reservoir because that’s where he woke up and pulled 20 people out of the water.
One shopkeeper I spoke to was taking a shower when the water came and got trapped in her bathroom. The water kept rising as she yelled back and forth to her husband on the opposite side of the door who refused to flee without her. The water kept rising and she stood on top of the toilet, then found a pipe sticking out the wall to get her a little higher. The water was up to her neck and she had run out of things to step on. “Then it stopped,” she said.
The people who outran the first wave were less lucky because on the bungalow-covered northwest-facing beach a 10 meter wave bore down with greater speed and power and destroyed just about everything. Then a 5-meter wave followed it up.
You think you understand the power of the wave when you walk into the village and see all the damaged buildings but you’re wrong. The damaged buildings are on the side of the swell, on the beach where the big waves hit there is nothing but dust and tree stumps.
If you remember 9/11 and all the stories of near misses, widowed mothers, and heroic rescues, this is quite similar. But in New York there were 3000 deaths in a city of 8 million. Here there were 2000 deaths in a village of 5000. So everyone here is affected. The other difference is that no one seems all that upset. Thais are moving on with their lives and even though the place is in ruins and 40% of the people here died three months ago there isn’t a pall over the place as you might expect.
The recovery situation here is difficult to write about because I’ve spent the last four days reporting on it for a story I hope to have published soon in the states. I’m just sick of that topic right now even though it’s the principle story here. So, briefly:
No relief agencies have helped on Ko Phi Phi and the government has forbid building at least until late May. Why? Well many here think it’s an effort to “starve out” the poor landowners here, compelling them to sell their beachfront real estate to make way for a mega-resort. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars donated around the world the only money the folks here have gotten is $50 per person and $500 per business.
In response, local residents are digging out themselves and trying to make Phi Phi a profitable tourist destination again. Some background of Phi Phi: It became a wildly popular vacation spot after the 1999 release of The Beach which starred Leo Dicaprio and was shot on Phi Phi. The movie portrayed a mystical island getaway for tromping backpackers which of course helped turn it into an over-developed retreat for the rich.
The well-heeled tourists are gone but a trickle of curious backpackers have returned. They’re the one’s cleaning up the island. So the mental picture here is: forklifts and dump trucks sitting idle in the dirt while a bunch of backpackers (who would otherwise be smoking pot, drinking Thai whiskey, or otherwise being a drain on their parents) manually do the work of proper relief workers. Sound strange/troubling/magical/temporary? It is.
I’m trying to tell that story, which has so far gone untold, and have devoted my time to trying to get the right information and turn it into a good story and, oh yeah there’s something else you have to do, find someone to buy it. I’ve contacted the NY Times, CNN, and MSNBC where I have decent contacts but if any of you media types can help me with an e-mail address or two I’ll be much obliged.
Not sure where I’m spending my Easter birthday, either here or Krabi I think.