Removed from the devastation, students cope with the unknown in aftermath of tsunami

Feb. 8, 2005, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 15 years, 11 months ago

Immediately after the Dec. 26 tsunamis crashed across the shores of 12 countries, people began counting the dead. Twenty-four hours after the first waves struck land, the death toll was slated at 22,000. Two days later, that number had more than tripled. 80,000. 119,000. 130,000. The number of dead and missing currently stands at 286,000 and is still climbing.

Of all these people, junior Ramona Singh can only think about one.

Her childhood friend lives in Tamil Nadu, the Indian state hit hardest by the walls of water. Ramona had been planning to visit her over the summer but knows that this is no longer an option. "I don't even know if she's alive or dead,” she says. "I think of her a lot now. I'm just scared to [try to] contact her, because I don't want to find out that she's dead.”

The wake of the tsunamis reaches far beyond the 12 nations that were ravaged by the giant waves. Millions of people across the world can do nothing but wait for news of their loved ones. Fifty-two countries, including the U.S., have people who are reported dead or missing, according to "” Of those who survived, an estimated five million have been deprived of food or water or threatened by disease, according to The Washington Post. Blazers with family and friends in the region struck by the tsunamis are experiencing a mixture of anxiety and relief as they cope with the absence and recovery of loved ones.

"It hit so close to home”

At first, senior Vidushi Singh did not make the connection between the natural disaster and her best friend. All she could think about as she watched TV was the extreme devastation of Tamil Nadu, her birthplace. Raised there until she was two, Vidushi could now see footage of surging walls of seawater decimating the state's villages. The next day she remembered: Her best friend, Michelle Koilpillai, had left for vacation in Tamil Nadu at the beginning of winter break.

At that point, the disaster became even more personal. "So many people had died,” says Vidushi. "Knowing that Michelle was there it just hit so close to home.”

On Jan. 4, Vidushi had still not made contact with Koilpillai, a Takoma Academy senior. She would not discuss the possibility that her friend was hurt, choosing instead to wait for definite answers. "Right now,” she said, "I just hope.”

Several days later, on Vidushi's birthday, Koilpillai called to say that she had moved to a region unaffected by the tsunamis, and unhurt. Vidushi was immensely relieved, and says that the worst part of the experience was the uncertainty . "I was really hoping that she was okay, but at the same time, always doubting,” she says. "The whole time I just felt so much confusion.”

Teens in Vidushi's situation typically experience a great sense of helplessness and vulnerability, according to Andrea Leiman, a clinical psychologist. "The uncertainty can cause a lot of anxiety,” she says. "A child might think, 'Why bother doing my homework if I don't know whether my aunt is still alive?'”

A single phone call

Freshman April Dalbello spent three hours in this uncertainty, waiting for the most important phone call of her life. Her older sister, a 2004 Blair graduate, had been scheduled to leave for Thailand from Switzerland a day before the tsunamis struck. Dalbello was terrified, convinced that her sister had been in the area that was impacted. But finally, her sister called to say she was safe. The "incredibly scary” time was over.

For others, that period of time dragged on for days. Freshman Olivia Bozik had spent many years under the mentoring of Christopher Gates, a dance teacher who recently moved to Java. When Bozik realized that he had been in an area that the tsunami had struck, she was stunned.

"I just went into total shock,” she says. "It was really nerve-wracking, especially when I realized that I'd never really got a chance to say goodbye.”

A few days later, Gates' parents called Bozik to inform her that he had contacted them and was "totally okay.” The tsunamis had just missed him, leaving his home untouched, but destroying dozens of coastal villages nearby.

Coping through helping

At least one million people are facing the total destruction of their homes and belongings, according to The Washington Post. Millions of others are worrying about how they can provide aid to their suddenly destitute family members and friends. Among them is junior Abishek Sinha.

Sinha came to America eight months ago, traveling with his brother to join their mother and receive a better education. He was at a family gathering when news of the tsunamis was first released. Everyone, he says, was frantic for information. "We were all anxious to know,” he says. "At one time 100 questions.”

Several days later, Sinha's family received a phone call from his uncle, who lives in Tamil Nadu. While uninjured, his uncle is now homeless. "Talking to him was so, so sad,” Sinha says, rubbing his eyes. "He told me, 'I've lost everything.' I tried to give him courage on the phone, but what can you do from all the way over here?”

For the past nine days, Sinha has been doing everything he can. With Silver International, he has raised nearly $500 in three days, which will be donated to a Blair graduate doing dental work in Thailand for the relief effort. Sinha will be focusing his next fundraisers at three local, predominantly Indian churches.

Sinha's intense dedication to the cause is driven in part by the connection he feels to the victims. "My uncle worked hard. Everybody worked hard in India. And then, in one second,” he says, snapping his fingers, "everything is washed up. If you're saved, you should thank God and try to help them. You never know what the next day will bring you.”

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