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Rebuilding Sri Lanka

Booze Allen Hamilton employees hear how donations were used after the tsunami.

Seven months have passed since a devastating tsunami crashed into Sri Lanka and parts of Southeast Asia. In the subsequent months, millions upon millions of dollars and man hours have been dedicated to rebuilding the areas ravaged by water, but more work remains to be done.

During a presentation to employees at Booze Allen Hamilton Thursday afternoon, Charles Blake, senior director of emergency and international response for the American Red Cross of the National Capital Area, told of the work he did in the two months he spent in Sri Lanka, informing them of how their donations helped begin the healing process.

"I was a team leader responsible for the distribution of nonfood relief items," Blake said. "We distributed items that came in from 70 Red Cross societies around the world and made sure the right items that had been requested were given to the people who needed them."

The outpouring of generosity toward the tsunami victims led to the closing of a port in Sri Lanka for three weeks, while all perishable or unnecessary items, like winter coats and snow boots, were set aside from the mosquito nets, tents, sleeping mats and kitchen items needed to reconstruct destroyed villages.

"This was an experience like nothing I've seen in my 25 years with the Red Cross," Blake said. "The magnitude and sheer devastation of the tsunami was incredible, but the psychological impact the people have to deal with is just overwhelming. The loss of life in the blink of an eye" was immense, he said.

Trying to help victims in 13 countries increased the stress of handling the situation, he said, adding that relief teams dispatched by the Red Cross will most likely be a presence in Sri Lanka and other affected areas for the next three to five years.

"We still have a lot of work to do. There are still people living in temporary camps, and there's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be replaced," Blake said. "People will be dealing with this for the rest of their lives."

Replacing the tangible, physical needs lost to the tsunami will be an easier feat to accomplish in comparison to healing the pain of losing loved ones.

"Part of our efforts are to care for the psycho-social needs of the victims," he said. "We're working on training teachers to help children deal with the devastation and also to train counselors to help the adults who lost children."

STILL, THE SURVIVORS have shown an amazing resiliency, he said. "After their mourning period was over, they jumped right into the recovery period. They're doing much better now," he said. "They appreciate what we've been doing for them so much."

Thursday afternoon's presentation to the Booze Allen Hamilton employees was to better explain how their donation was used to help the tsunami victims, Blake said.

"We wanted to thank them for what they did to assist the Red Cross for helping us do our mission," he said. "After I showed them some photos from Sri Lanka, people were coming up to me and told me I really brought it home for them and helped them understand what it was like."

As a volunteer with the Red Cross and as a senior consultant and co-chair of the Pacific American Forum at Booze Allen Hamilton, Siddharth Mathur was eager to hear what had been accomplished in the months since the tsunami hit.

"As a firm and as employees, we were quite involved in deciding where to donate our time and money after the tsunami," he said. Hearing Blake tell his story was "a good way to see how the efforts from our office were channeled to those affected by the disaster."

Since the aftermath of the tsunami has faded from public view in the past few months, there has been a curiosity as to how the millions and millions of donated dollars were used to rebuild Sri Lanka, Mathur said.

"We want to look at how this huge response was mobilized in a human perspective," he said. "It's a good way to see and hear firsthand how our donations impacted those who really needed it and also see what the results were. We [usually] don't get the opportunity to talk with the people who were out there on the front line doing the work."

A total of almost $1 million in cash donations from employees and pro bono services were given to the Red Cross by Booze Allen Hamilton and its employees around the world, said Joe Suarez, director of community relations for Booze Allen Hamilton.

"This was an opportunity for us to recognize the Red Cross and hear about all the work done in Sri Lanka," Suarez said. "We work with hundreds of charities across the U.S. and around the world. We operate under an employee-centric model of giving, meaning our philanthropy is guided by employee involvement in a cause."

Thursday's presentation was an opportunity to remind people that the Red Cross may have a larger presence or visibility when assisting the victims of a huge disaster, but it is the little, day-to-day operations that need the most help from volunteers, said Linda Mathes, the CEO of the Red Cross of the National Capital Area.

"We are totally dependent on companies and individuals helping us out in order to provide the services we do," she said.

"People look to the Red Cross to provide assistance in times of disaster, but there are smaller disasters that happen every day," Mathes said.

Currently, the Red Cross is working to assist families whose homes were lost in an apartment complex fire last month, and a disaster on a smaller scale is still a disaster to those affected by it, she said.

"The real need for us is the in long-term recovery plan and process," Mathes said. "We partner with other associations to provide food and water in emergencies, disease prevention, family supplies, emergency preparedness and prevention, and with the mental health needs of survivors," she said.

Although several months have passed, "the needs of the survivors is still great. We can't rebuild people's lives and homes overnight. It takes time," Mathes said.