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Solomon Islanders living in fear

More than 6,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 36,000 people affected by earthquake-tsunami.

BY P.J. HELLER | HONIARA, Solomon Islands | June 8, 2007

"People were traumatized by the tsunami. They are afraid of the water and still reluctant to come down from the evacuation camps in the hills. My own impression is that the scars run deeper than the data on the damage suggests."

—Masato Koinuma

More than two months after a massive earthquake and tsunami in the western Solomon Islands, islanders still are afraid to return to their seaside villages and remain living huddled in tents and makeshift camps on mountain hillsides, authorities are reporting.

"People were traumatized by the tsunami," said Masato Koinuma, who spent two weeks visiting affected areas with a team from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. "They are afraid of the water and still reluctant to come down from the evacuation camps in the hills. My own impression is that the scars run deeper than the data on the damage suggests."

The agency said both short-term and long-term relief was needed to rebuild schools, hospitals, clinics and other infrastructure following the April 2 earthquake and tsunami.

The undersea quake, measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale, triggered a tsunami that sent huge waves crashing into Western and Choiseul provinces, destroying and damaging homes, schools, roads and bridges, shops and water and sanitation systems. The earthquake and tsunami left 52 people dead, 40 others injured and affected more than 36,000 islanders, according to the latest figures from the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO). It said more than 3,200 homes were destroyed by the tsunami and another 3,047 damaged by the earthquake. More than 300 communities were affected, it reported.

"Damaged roads, bridges and wharves in the tsunami affected areas must be restored as soon as possible, so people can once again have easy access to markets and clinics," said Solomon Islands Finance Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo. "Rebuilding and rehabilitating infrastructure will help people return to their normal lives."

Others, however, said a return to normalcy could be a long way off even though the government has indicated that the recovery is under way.

"Affected people continue to live in tents set up on mountains for fear of returning to their homes near the seaside and being hit by further tsunami," the Japanese Red Cross Society said. "Though some hospitals and clinics have resumed service, schools remain closed and a return to their normal life seems unlikely any time soon."

Mental health issues on the islands are even of greater concern than rebuilding, according to a team from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is working with the government on an emergency assistance project.

"The emergency assistance project would only solve the tip of some of the problems these people are facing," said team leader Robert Guild, noting that social, emotional and psychological issues, especially among children, "need to be addressed quickly before they worsen."

The emergency assistance project, which will be co-financed by the European Union, is designed to repair roads, bridges, wharves and the water and sanitation system in the town of Gizo. It was scheduled to run to 2009.

"One of the main goals of the emergency assistance project is to restore economic and social activities in the affected areas to the pre-tsunami level," Guild said. "We look forward to working with the Solomon Islands government to help make the affected areas less vulnerable to natural disasters in the future."

Government officials said more than $10 million has already been spent in the recovery phase of the disaster. Funds have come from various countries, including New Zealand, Australia, the United States and China. Support has also come from overseas aid agencies such as the Japanese Red Cross Society and Save the Children, faith-based groups including World Vision and the World Council of Churches Office in the Pacific (WCCOP) and its partner, the Solomon Island Christian Association (SIPA), as well as from and individuals and others.

WCCOP is a member of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global network of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.

An appeal has been launched that would allow the church groups to train trauma counselors and then provide trauma counseling in the affected communities. WCCOP requested trainers from the Church of Sweden to conduct the training and to assist with assessment of needs and debriefing of staff. SICA will also undertake efforts to build community disaster preparedness for future emergencies.

"There is an urgent need for trauma counseling," ACT said.

It noted that the National Disaster Management Office requested the churches carry out the trauma counseling because "they have an extensive network at the community level. Affected communities are so traumatized that they are reluctant to return to their villages."

Training of trauma counselors was expected to take two weeks. Trauma counseling was expected to last three weeks. The project was scheduled to be completed July 31.

Disaster preparedness workshops would be held in Simbo, Gizo and Munda.

"Many of the affected communities were totally unprepared for the tsunami since it is the first time that it has occurred," ACT said. "The affected communities while being exposed to earthquakes before totally lacked the capacity to deal with such tsunami emergencies and as such were caught unaware."

In the meantime, some residents in hard hit Western and Choiseul provinces reportedly were refusing to assist in cleaning up their villages and were waiting for the government to assist them in rebuilding their homes, according to news reports from the area.

"These villagers need to know that we have to help each other in order to make things move faster," said a NDMO spokesman. "They all have to take up the responsibility and assist."

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