An Engineer Reports from the Disaster Zone: Letter from Sri Lanka
...joy that fell from the cheek of India. This seems a fitting metaphor for Peters and my somber mission. The first impressions of Colombo are that of smiling faces and heat the latter a welcome change from the 14× weather I left in New York; the former, the seemingly imperturbable spirit of the Sri Lankan people.
On Sunday, January 31, we rented a car and hired a driver who drove us to the southwest city of Galle, which features a 300-year-old Dutch fort. The fort, unlike the remainder of the area, withstood the tsunami and protected the buildings within its walls.
The 72-mile trip to Galle is a long one, taking us four hours, including stops for observations and picture-taking. Ninety percent of the length of the road is lined with a mixture of intact and demolished buildings. Remarkably, the road is in good shape, suffering little damage compared to the vast damage suffered by buildings.
A bridge and adjacent railroad embankment were washed out in Kosgoda, about 40 miles south of Colombo. Construction workers had erected a temporary bridge and were still reconstructing the embankment and rails, as shown in the picture.
The area of the Galle road near Mitiyagoda and north of Kiddaduwa was a grim scene. This is where the tsunami struck the train traveling on the Galle-Matara railway. Fifteen hundred people were killed on the train, according to officials on site. One month after the disaster, the train had been reassembled (with warped, distorted cars and little left of the engine) and replaced on the tracks. The area is now a relief center where United States Agency for International Development, Dutch and Austrian workers are caring for the needs of the displaced and destitute. Most of the homes in this area were razed by the tsunami and many of the residents were sitting around in a post-traumatic daze. Many stayed close to what was left of their former homes. We were able to find an unambiguous water mark in this area on the second floor of a robust and intact building. By comparing this water mark to the beach waterline, we estimated the height of the tsunami wave at this location to be 25-30 ft above sea level. Comparing this estimate to the reassembled train, the water level would have been about 5-10 ft above the top of the train.
We traveled on to Galle and viewed, among other things, the port there. The port seemed to be relatively intact. Perhaps the most striking image was that of a large ship that had been left on the top of a wharf by the tsunami. We understand that the Dutch government has volunteered to lift the ship back into the water as a gift.
Feb. 1 we will meet with government officials, and view the Port of Colombo.