Tsunami 2004: “We changed the hotel just before we embarked on our trip”

Tileman Fischer, former CEO of Allianz Reinsurance Asia Pacific in Singapore (ARAP) was in Sri Lanka at the time of the tsunami on December 26, 2004. He recalls his personal experience and the aid work that he supported directly after the tsunami.

 

How do you remember December 26, 2004?

 

Tileman Fischer: We were staying at an Ayurveda hotel on the southern coast of the island, not far from the well-known city of Galle. The hotel is situated on a hill that used to form part of a coconut plantation, about eight to ten meters above sea level and about 50 meters from the beach.

 

 

Where were you when the tsunami hit?

 

The tidal wave struck at around 9.30 a.m. We were having breakfast on the hotel's terrace. We could hear the raging sea but we couldn't see the coast or the actual tidal wave from the terrace. The fact that we decided not to walk along the beach after our swim that morning might be destiny. The fact that we changed hotel just before we embarked on our trip might also be destiny. The hotel we had originally booked was destroyed by the tsunami.

 

 

What were your impressions after the event?

 

After we went down to the sea after breakfast, all of the property's boundary walls were destroyed. It wasn't until we spoke to the hotel management that we realized the scale of the disaster. That afternoon, we walked to the nearby villages to see what sort of destruction had been caused. More than 5,000 people in the surrounding villages on the coast had lost their lives due to the force of the tsunami. Others had fled to a monastery on a hill. Trains carrying passengers had been derailed, all of the houses 300 meters or less from the water had been destroyed or severely damaged, ships had been tossed onto the street from the beach. Few escaped the destructive force of the wave unscathed.

 

 

What came as a particular shock?

 

The wife of one of the hotel employees was bathing her children in a tub in front of their house when the tsunami hit. All three of them were carried away by the wave and drowned.

 

 

How did your aid campaign start?

 

We spontaneously collected 1,000 euros from hotel guests to provide emergency food supplies to the people who had fled to the temple in the hills. The hotel kitchen prepared meals and we helped to package and distribute them. There were no problems getting food because the backlands had been spared any destruction.

 

The next thing I did was to call a friend in Munich and ask him to launch a donations campaign via Rotary and the Order of Saint John. We collected 10,000 euros after only a few days.

 

 

Where did it go from there?

 

The family that owned the hotel had lost their first hotel, located on the west coast south of Colombo, in the catastrophe. Nevertheless they were committed to providing aid in the vicinity of their second hotel, the one we were staying in, in order to help their employees and their families, who had been hit hard.

 

Things that were urgently required included clean water, wastewater arrangements such as aseptic tank, kitchen supplies and help to rebuild huts. The victims were happy to receive any help they could.

 

We extended our stay by a few more days. Many guests wanted to leave the island but were stuck at Colombo airport, which was completely overrun.

 

 

Can you provide details of the aid work?

 

Fast, provisional reconstruction of homes with access to clean water; restoration of the village infrastructure, primarily schools and kindergartens, and securing jobs, that is, reconstructing a small fleet of boats for fishing.

 

The huts had to be reconstructed quickly before the state resettled the inhabitants, as had already been announced, to use the coast for tourism purposes. The hotel repair shop made construction components for the huts that were then assembled on site. The water treatment equipment was purchased by friends from Singapore. A government program would have put people in tent-based accommodation for a very long period, as had already happened elsewhere. We also reconstructed the local kindergarten at the same time. We were able to finance these measures using our donations fund, although the material and labor costs increased considerably, as was to be expected.

 

 

When and how did Allianz get involved?

 

After I had flown back and forth between Singapore and Sri Lanka several times to see how the reconstruction work was progressing, the news of our work in Sri Lanka had traveled, meaning that Allianz in Munich also offered financial assistance. This money allowed us to renovate and extend a large school further inland to replace the tiny schools located near the water that had now been destroyed. The authorities felt that renovating and extending the school was easier than building a new one, and work could get underway immediately.

The school was completed around six months later and we were able to attend the opening ceremony. Dharmaraja School in Weligama now features a commemorative plaque for the donor, ALLIANZ. Mercedes Singapore donated a school bus to transport the schoolchildren from the coast to school and back.

 

 

Looking back, what motivated you to be so active in providing aid?

 

You can imagine that when you experience a disaster first hand and see the pain and suffering for yourself, it's a completely different experience to reading about it in the newspaper. I was also living in the region that was badly affected at the time. And we were particularly moved by the fact that we had a guardian angel twice - once when we changed hotel and once when we decided not to be on the beach that morning.

 

 

What is your opinion of the aid measures in Sri Lanka in retrospect?

 

We were able to achieve a lot and provide immediate aid with the money from Germany. And then things reach the point when disaster aid turns into development aid. We wanted to provide sustainable help with the school and kindergarten. Based on my experience, we can say that, at least in Sri Lanka, it was mainly the private projects that were successful.

 

 

Were there any other aid measures after that?

 

Our hotel management team had suggested another measure. The idea was that the fishermen, who still wanted to live in their houses on the beach, wanted to be able to go back to work as well. I spoke to a number of shipyards and, after identifying a suitable type of ship, numerous ships were built for the local fishermen. 

"Tsunami Evacuation" sign in Phuket, Thailand (Photo: Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com)
"Tsunami Evacuation" sign in Phuket, Thailand (Photo: Oleg Golovnev / Shutterstock.com)

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Bettina Sattler
Allianz SE
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