Rumors, false reports mar cleanup

In Sri Lanka, unreliable information can spark fear and security problems.

As workers struggle to deal with the coastal wreckage here, official figures of everything from tsunami orphans, to the number of homes destroyed, to the size of refugee camps are undergoing daily and sometimes hourly changes.

As local officials try to grapple with an event powerful enough to wreak havoc in 11 countries, homegrown rumors, local media reports, and even astrological predictions are intermixing with sketchy government estimates and an onrush of international aid efforts. Aid teams from more than 14 countries have arrived. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to visit this former Dutch-colony town on Friday. Japanese teams are overseeing the rapid construction of steel bridges at key points in the city. Neon lights blazed amid the rubble Wednesday as some electrical grids were restored.

Still, much of the atmosphere and information here remain slightly unreal, a kind of developing-world version of the Irish poet Yeats's "center does not hold." Estimates of the numbers of those killed and displaced, the amount of aid that is arriving and where it is going, and reports of types of medical problems are often unreliable.

Along the coast, residents are conducting a silent boycott of fish, since it comes from water many corpses washed into. In village after village, police report that new tsunami rumors remain a security risk, since they are creating instability.

Government statistics and official estimates are running particularly large margins of error. While this is not unusual in disasters, experts say, in the case of the tsunami, the sheer number of them is. Official estimates first suggested that 25 percent of the fatalities were children; now senior officials say it may be as high as 40 percent. But no one is sure. Figures published three days ago of the number of houses destroyed was nearly 70,000. But on Tuesday, senior government officials told the Monitor the actual estimate would likely come in closer to 25,000.

"The information is changing every day, the information is changing every hour," says Kingsley Wickramaratne, governor of Sri Lanka's southern province, in response to a question about the number of orphaned children. "You can't rely on these figures, and please don't. The numbers on my reports are different all the time. We weren't prepared for this."

In some cases, officials relied on foreign-news reports that proved false. For nearly a week now, for example, Sri Lankan officials and media have reported problems with diseases like cholera, and said they were an imminent problem.

Yet a visit Wednesday to a Korean medical team from Seoul National University along a southern coastal road near the ocean yielded no problems among the local population with serious diseases of any kind. Sangato Shin from the team stated there were no gastrointestinal diseases, no diarrhea, and no evidence of problems like cholera.

"I heard about it [the diseases] and read about them before I got here. But we found that it isn't true. I've not found one case of diarrhea," Dr. Shin said.

In some cases, blatantly false stories have appeared in national media. A leading Sri Lankan English daily reported last week that all the escaped convicts from a flooded prison on the southern coast had returned to their cells in order to escape recrimination. Yet police in Galle and in coastal cities to the east denied any such return to incarceration in either of two jails where prisoners escaped.

In recent days, a famous Sri Lankan astrologer went on a popular TV news channel, the privately owned Swarnavahini, to tell the island nation that he was absolutely certain another tsunami was coming, between Jan. 3 and Jan. 8, and that he would risk his life to guarantee this event.

Many city Sri Lankans take such prophecy with a grain of salt. But in the villages along the coast, they not only have had a terrific hold on the popular imagination, but in interviews in villages up and down the coast this week, they continue to have this hold.

As a local police official in Weligama, H.L. Samantha, stated, "We feel the security has improved after two days. But the problem is people's fear of another wave." Other police intimated that tsunami rumors were simply a way for criminals to get locals to leave their homes.

Even senior Sri Lankan officials have stated to reporters that the views of astrologers need to be taken seriously, since, as one put it, "astrology is a sub-branch of the sciences."

One of the most frustrating bits of misinformation, or noninformation, among ordinary fishermen and hotel owners on the coastline, has to do with the dispensation of property.

President Kumeratunga at one point stated that no structures closer to 100 meters to the ocean would be allowed in the rebuilding. Now some officials report that figure may be 500 meters. Just who will be allowed to go and stay is hotly debated, but with more heat than light.

It is generally agreed that at a popular level, as in many South Asian nations, there is widespread distrust of government statements, and this has been compounded after the tsunami.

As a Muslim homeowner near the coast said, "we didn't trust the government before, and we more distrust it now. In the first 24 hours, the government tried to play down the tsunami, calling it a flood. Many people don't trust that the aid will reach them, or even that there won't be another wave."

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