The Tsunami Tsummer Blog

The Tsunami Tsummer Blog

Summer fieldwork and internships often spur great personal and professional growth, but usually for just one student at a time. Perhaps colleagues eventually see photos or hear about the experience, but the circle of learners stays small.

Health management and policy student Joshua Karnes, on the other hand, found a way to share amazing images and accounts from his relief work last summer in tsunami-devastated Indonesian villages. He reported his observations in real time, while his emotions were still fresh, via the burgeoning Internet technology of blogging.

Along with Karnes’s family and friends, School of Public Health faculty, staff, and students back in Ann Arbor, as well as countless visitors to the SPH website, were captivated by almost daily updates to his “Tsunami Tsummer” blog. He uploaded about a hundred photos, showing startling examples of both devastation and human resilience in an area hit by one of the worst natural disasters in decades.

Karnes’s actual assignment was to administer relief funds, particularly a cash-for-work program to rebuild a sanitation infrastructure. But he assigned himself a second important task: to be the eyes and ears for people back home. He exhibited documentary flair, telling and interpreting accounts of villages leveled, teddy bears and human remains still being discovered half a year after the flooding, and even the struggle of his young interpreter, Ruby, to recover from a sudden case of typhoid fever.

Here are excerpts from “Tsunami Tsummer,” in Karnes’s own words. Find more at

May 7, 2005:

Hello, family and friends. I started this blog to chronicle my experiences as a relief worker and logistics delegate with an international NGO working in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. This is the area that was so totally devastated by the tsunami which happened on December 26, 2004. Some villages in the province have had up to 95 percent mortality. The town of Banda Aceh, where I live, lost over 80,000.

May 18, 2005:

I went to the Baiturahman mosque which was shown in so much of the post-tsunami TV footage. As you walk about two blocks away from the mosque towards the sea, the scene changes drastically. . . . here you start to get a feel for the devastation. This was a bustling open-air market, but the two-story buildings lie crumbling, some teetering precariously waiting to collapse. They are uninhabitable . . . you see these empty storefronts with the apartments above and think . . . a family used to live here. That family is now dead. All of them. As you get closer to the coast the devastation is absolute. Most buildings collapsed either from the earthquake or from the force of the tsunami. Here, the few who survived have erected tents and short-term shelters. The logistical nightmare of resettlement has yet to happen.

June 14, 2005:

I spent a good part of today haggling over the cost of hoes and sledgehammers. Our implementation is going well. We have had to write and rewrite our proposal but I feel that things are finally ready to get moving. I also spent two hours getting cost estimates for beds and sheets. We want to provide 200 beds for three orphanages in a village here. The kids have no beds and have been sleeping on the hard cement floor.

June 16, 2005:

After lunch, we found the remains of the village of Lhoong. We walked towards where the villagers were working and saw that many had stopped working. They were gathered around a large stump that they had been clearing. Sujata wanted to talk to them and as we approached someone exclaimed that they had found a body. I went closer . . . and yes, there were definitely remains. They had found several arm bones and part of a jaw and skull. In this tropical climate, bodies decompose in weeks. What surprised me most was that the villagers dug a small hole next to the bones and just put the bones in the hole and closed it up. . . . No prayer, no formality. Sujata asked one of the older women if this was traumatic . . . she said no, it was quite normal. She added that finding the remains offered a well-needed break from the day’s labor-intensive activities. What a world, what a world.

July 14, 2005:

Ruby, the sunshine of our office, has gotten typhoid fever. . . . There are many pics of her on the blog and she is constantly swiping my camera and taking more . . . she loves to be in front of a camera and is often the life of the party (or at least the office). I was speechless when I first saw her in the clinic. Instead of bursting with energy, she lay asleep, almost lifeless with an IV dripping into her hand.

August 9, 2005:

Banda Aceh has been a life-changing experience for this delegate. Yes, this was my summer internship, but it didn’t feel anything like that. I found it extremely gratifying to watch a concept paper become a proposal and then become a vibrant program. . . . To look at village “before and after” pics and say . . . I had something to do with that! Ruby and I have a final hug and cry. She gave me a stunning Acehenese embroidered shirt. I gave her a picture of our team in Bandar Baru. It was taken the day before she came down with typhoid. I will definitely miss this girl. The people’s smiles and laughter in the face of tragedy have humbled me and shown me a positively resilient attitude that I never would have expected. They opened their homes to me, they opened their hearts. In many ways, they have given me much more than I could ever give them.

Introductory text written by Mary Beth Lewis; blog text and photos courtesy of Joshua Karnes.

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