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In Hard-hit Village, Emergency Plan May Help to Avert Future Disasters

Some 50 South Indian villagers are spread out along the sandy beach. The women are in brightly colored saris, many wearing gold-colored jewelry. Some men sit and repair fishing nets, while teenage boys playfully tackle each other. Then the residents of Vellakoil get some news from a small group of fellow residents huddled a few yards away: Dangerous weather is on the way.

The men, women and children fan out across the beach, and some run into the Indian Ocean to save those out at sea. Using stretchers made of blankets and local bamboo, others carry the ill to a makeshift first-aid station.

Welcome to an emergency planning exercise that Indian nonprofits, with support from the American Jewish World Service, are attempting to spread from village to village.

The exercise was launched about a decade ago in another part of India with the help of a group known as Sanghamitra.

Funds contributed after last December’s devastating tsunami — and the chaos that it created for tens of thousands of villagers along the southern Indian coast — are helping to pay for the training and travel to make the program work.

Now that it’s reached Vellakoil, a village of approximately 475 people, the idea is to have residents bring the concept to other parts of India’s southern coast.

The idea of villagers teaching other villagers is central to the ideology of nonprofit groups the AJWS supports, and to the AJWS itself.

Villagers are not “super-excited about a bunch of experts coming in and telling them how to run their lives,” says Kate Kroeger, the senior program officer responsible for the AJWS’ work in India.

Vellakoil residents are serious about the exercise, which is not surprising in a village that lost 19 people in the tsunami.

Before the exercise begins, they proudly report their duties — monitoring weather systems, performing first aid, documenting damage — to a group of visitors.

The exercise begins and ends with the villagers lined up along the beach, their arms outstretched as they recite a pledge of mutual aid.

When they first performed the exercise about a month ago, at least one resident is said to have broken down in tears as horrific memories resurfaced.

This time around, the emotions seem to have lessened. Several of the teenage boys have smiles on their faces as they carry people from place to place.

It’s impossible to say how much the exercise could help to offset the effects of another tsunami, but residents say the system helped lessen the effects of floods that recently swept across southern India. Even psychological benefits are no small thing among villagers still working to overcome the traumatic memories of the disaster.

“Now we have confidence,” says Kuppamanikkam, a village woman who lost two of her grandchildren in the tsunami. “Now we don’t have any fear.”

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