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Tsunami Aftermath Contains Lessons For New Orleans

Tsunami Aftermath Contains Lessons For New Orleans

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Katrina's victims may learn lessons from Thailand's tsunami where DNA and real estate profits have become priorities, and thousands of survivors still cannot cope eight months after rescue.

Unlike impoverished Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, quake-propelled tidal swells hit Thailand's glitzy tourist zone, killing more than 5,400 Thai residents and foreigners.

It became a crash-course for U.S. and international aid workers dealing with relatively prosperous victims in vicious floods.

Investigators needed to quickly determined the identities of Thailand's tsunami toll -- so relatives could file insurance claims, inherit property, and stay in business.

Interpol tried to ensure criminals did not fake their own deaths to dodge arrest amid the tsunami's chaos.

The uniqueness of popular tattoos became a valuable clue, identifying many Westerners' corpses in Thailand.

Expensive, private, American and other security firms became a growth industry, along with scam artists, clairvoyants and others seeking to profit from the hunt for missing loved ones.

The Dec. 26 tsunami killed at least 220,000 people in a dozen Asian nations.

Today, more than eight months after the water slammed land, 1,900 bodies remain in limbo just in Thailand alone.

They are packed in refrigerated storage because no one can identify DNA samples scraped from the remains.

An additional 3,500 corpses were eventually named and consigned to burial or cremation in Thailand and abroad, thanks to an international computerized database staffed by experts from America, Europe, China, Thailand and elsewhere.

In some cases, however, whole families of Thai residents and foreign tourists perished in the tsunami, leaving no relatives to report missing people, and no DNA samples to compare.

"It will take another two to three years" to identify the remaining corpses, Noppadol Somboonsub, head of the Victim Identification Center, told journalists in August.

Countless illegal, exploited immigrants from Burma who worked in the tourist trade, on construction sites, factories and the fishing industry also disappeared without trace because they were furtive, undocumented and lived a nomadic life.

America's southern Gulf would have many undocumented Mexicans.

An unknowable number, of various nationalities, were swept off Thailand's west coast into the Andaman Sea, which leads to the Bay of Bengal, never to be found or counted.

In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere in the southern United States, flooded buildings were expected to yield clusters of drowned victims who may not have surviving relatives to assist in a DNA match.

Thailand's tsunami taught investigators three vital keys to quickly identify the dead.

In the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, British police visited apartments, houses and offices in England, meticulously dusting personal property for fingerprints to see if they matched Interpol's high-tech tsunami database listing people missing and dead.

Interpol provided a professional standard of "forensic identifiers" that governments throughout the world agreed upon, following the tsunami.

"There are three identifiers: fingerprints, DNA or dental records. For a death certificate to be issued, you need two of those. Any combination, but two-out-of-three," a British spokesman said in an interview in Phuket shortly after the tsunami hit.

Similar to the many foreign tourists killed by the tsunami, many Katrina victims have extensive paper trails, including residential records, driver's licenses, employment, welfare and other financial documents.

Meanwhile, after sea water drained from Phuket, Khao Lak Beach and other hard-hit areas, some powerful speculators moved in like alleged carpet-baggers, buying distressed sites at cheap rates, or intimidating poor villagers into vacating prized plots.

Other post-tsunami wheelers and dealers lobbied for permits to rebuild on the same sites, despite warnings of future watery onslaughts.

Some simply ignored new regulations not to reconstruct vulnerable buildings.

Investors in Thailand try to persuade the world that Phuket and nearby beaches need the previous flow of tourists, spending cash in the battered region.

But pleading for tourists is not entirely successful.

Phuket and other tsunami zones previously enjoyed fame as world-class tourist destinations -- as did New Orleans -- but tourist occupancy rates are still way down, even in nearby areas untouched by the tsunami.

Many potential visitors fear a tsunami could strike again while they are enjoying the delightful beaches, spas, seafood and tropical ambiance of Thailand's west coast.

Honeymooners do not want to be caught in a survival-of-the-fittest evacuation.

Many potential visitors, especially extremely superstitious Asians, fear scare-you-to-death ghosts from the tsunami's underworld.

And along much of Thailand's stricken land, fresh water remains contaminated from the onslaught of seawater, resulting in shortages for drinking and bathing, environmentalists said.

This Southeast Asian country's tsunami experience caused 18,000 Thai survivors to suffer depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicidal thoughts or other psychological problems, according to Public Health Minister Dr. Suchai Charoenratanakul.

The tsunami's death toll still rises.

On tiny, gorgeous, Phi Phi island where more than 1,000 people died, scrap collectors and volunteers are still discovering occasional body parts under wreckage and in drainage areas.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is


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