Light of Siam Lodge No. 9791

Wednesday, 01 December 2010

Howard Digby-Johns recalls the day the tsunami struck

The overwhelming awfulness was that we knew nothing. You could have been 500 yards from people consumed by the water and see and hear nothing. Forget the image of a cresting wave. The tide just went out and came in. Just very far and very fast. The wave was maybe six inches high, but 100 miles long – that’s a lot of water. The strange thing is the water was black with debris. Most damage was caused by the third wave, and particularly as it receded.

The overwhelming awfulness was that we knew nothing. You could have been 500 yards from people consumed by the water and see and hear nothing. Forget the image of a cresting wave. The tide just went out and came in. Just very far and very fast. The wave was maybe six inches high, but 100 miles long – that’s a lot of water. The strange thing is the water was black with debris. Most damage was caused by the third wave, and particularly as it receded. 

The appalling tsunami which struck so much of Asia one year ago, is unimaginable for those who did not experience it, unforgettable in the terror it induced for those who did. Here in Phuket, in Thailand, we have a strong expatriate British community, a core of whom have formed their own English Constitution Lodge, Light of Siam, No. 9791. In one sense, we were uniquely placed to chronicle events as they unfolded, and to offer what assistance we could. 
No one needed to have died. My friends were in the sea when it receded about 1 km. They ran to their room, got clothes and valuables, and drove off in their car in time to see their chalet demolished by the water. Most people stayed to watch. One friend was on the roof of a beach cottage after the first wave. The cottages were in a row. The second wave took the people off the end cottage, and returned their bobbing bodies a little later. The third wave took those from the second cottage, and brought back the awful offering. 
Another friend was awakened by the black tide of death which she saw out of the window. She rushed out to the back, only to see another tide coming from the opposite direction. Then she was felled under the weight of the house wall falling on her. The water carried her and her wall into the reservoir. Luckily on the bottom of the reservoir, under the wall she did not panic, and went down to find a way out. She found one, only to find the surface blocked by sodden mattresses. She got an arm out, and was pulled to safety – she was only at the edge of the reservoir. Another friend was in a cave and was gently pressed to its roof. Others were taken up through trees, and trapped by their clothes. Miraculous escapes. Twelve months on, we still live with it. My friends who lost their little boy had the body identified only four weeks ago. I was with them that night. They had clung to the fantasy that he was on some remote island with fisherfolk. They took him home, and 400 attended the funeral of a little boy who was frozen in a container of corpses for all those months. They have just had a new baby. 
But now Phuket’s people have taken stock. Some are dead. Some are injured. Most businesses are open. But many people have lost the means to make a living. Many hotels remain open for business, but they sit empty. The beaches have been cleaned and are more beautiful than ever, but they are almost deserted. Only a few restaurants, shops, bars and attractions have been disrupted, but they lack customers. There is no shortage of drinking water, power, food or any serious threat of disease. Life in Phuket is basically normal. But the only means for the people here to recover their lives is for tourists to come back. 
So now Phuket’s people now face their second attack. Their recovery has been worse damaged by the second catastrophe – the tourists stayed away, and tourists are Phuket’s lifeblood. Phuket’s hotels are still virtually empty. For the tour guides, for those who gave massages on the beach, or took tourists on boat trips, ran stalls, or rented out deck chairs, there is still the rent and school fees and groceries to pay and suddenly no income at all. So the need to bring the tourists back is urgent. The poorest are local, and have no skills that would allow them to go elsewhere. 


Brethren of the Light of Siam Lodge, have col-lected and disbursed relief funds, cared for the injured, coordinated the medical effort, visited the injured in hospital, fed and watered those fleeing the beaches, housed the dis-possessed, gathered funds for schools and nurseries, acted as chauffeurs for tourists requiring flights or medical attention, or seeking lost ones, acted as embassy officers in the relief effort, built an orphan centre, re-paired fishing boats, provided both re-placement boats and fishing nets and are now responding to requests by the Embassies to help with the relatives of victims who will be visiting. 
We have now identified our masonic relief effort with a long term plan to help the most vulnerable – the children of the poor who have been worst affected by the tsunami and the subsequent tourist famine 
We need the tourists back. But for the most vulnerable, it is already too late. They have turned to loan sharks. A £300 loan results in a daily interest payment of £7. You may think this a stupid loan to accept, but for a new widow now homeless and destitute with two surviving children, the need for mattresses, mosquito nets, a rice cooker, and some rudimentary shelter probably seemed worth the terrible interest payments. Of course she will have to take her children out of school and finally she will probably have to give her children to the loan shark to deal with the ballooning loan. We should not dwell on what will happen to the children then. Children are amongst the worst affected of Phuket’s citizens. Some are orphans, and sexual predators are already at work. We have heard terrible stories from Aceh in Indonesia. 
The Thai Government has tried to help, but its facilities are in Bangkok, well away from whatever community support there is. The poorest families now have no jobs, no incomes, possibly no housing – the shanties obviously suffered worst. Even their little pre-existing possessions have gone. 


The community around The Green Man Pub in Chalong raised over £50,000, which we have disbursed to victims. The whole atmosphere of the Village Fête from Middle England sprang to life on Patak Road, including battering the landlord with his own flour, eggs and water prior to adding tasteful garnishes of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. He looked very tasty. 
There were generous donations of prizes and very spirited bidding for them. A scuba cylinder sold for £200 as a customer bid strongly against her husband, only to donate it back to be sold again at £60, only to be onsold at £30 and then passed to someone who really needed it. 
Cars were washed by bikini clad sirens, raffles and stalls raised. There was a tsunami stew, and a tsunami cocktail with proceeds to charity. Many raffle prizes were re-donated to the auction. The T-shirt, printed on salvaged stock, raised over £3,000 on the day, with demand still strong. 
The most vulnerable people assisted have been humbling. Three separate women were given £70 relief, which was brought back subsequently. The Government had paid them compensation of £300, and they wanted our relief to be recycled. The manager of my business, who lost his possessions, refused our assistance because he has a job and a salary – others need it more. 
We started a small relief effort for Phuket. We provided forms where they could tell us what they need: household effects, tools of trade, or a job. One reply reads ‘I want the tourists to come back and for it to be like it was’. This man needs to get back to work. 
The first phase was emergency aid; people needed surgery, food, clothing and medicines. This phase lasted about 2 weeks. The second phase was emergency assistance; getting people home, getting people re-housed and re-schooled, and getting people back to work. That phase is almost complete. The third phase is long term support for those who need it most. 
The Light of Siam Lodge has designed a project to house 50 orphans from the tsunami, and to support 200 additional children, largely single-parent children, and from the poorest and worst affected families, in a day care facility. We shall provide food, clothing and health care as required. 
We want to give hope back to children who have lost their homes and families, have been molested by sexual predators or abused by commercial exploiters. We want to provide them with marketable skills, whatever that requires, up to and including university education for those that qualify and can benefit. 
We shall deliver this through the structure of ChildWatch (, a charity with a 10-year record of delivering this type of programme in Phuket. 
We are looking for about £300,000 in capital costs, and up to £110,000 per year in running costs. We believe we have around £100,000 in capital and around £30,000 in running costs pledged for 3 years. We think the running costs will be the hardest thing to support, and are looking for future pledges from the Craft as well as a short term response. 
Given the money we wish to invest, governance is a big issue. I am looking at a Standing Committee, probably made up of (ex-officio) the Almoner, the Master, the Immediate Past Master, the Treasurer, the Senior Warden, the Junior Warden and any other Brother and wives of Brethren who wish to be involved. This Committee will have the sole signatories within it who will release funds to ChildWatch against approved expenses. 

The Grand Charity has now confirmed that they are giving to Light of Siam Lodge, No. 9791, £100,000 over three years to support the on-going costs of a project its members have created to help children.  They are working with ChildWatch, a local Thai charity, to house fifty orphans and provide support for an additional 200 in a day care centre.

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