APA Participates in Examination of Long-term Reconstruction in Sri Lanka

By Jim Schwab, AICP
APA Research Associate

Approximately 35,000 people died, thousands of homes and more than 150 schools were destroyed in Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, when a tsunami generated by an offshore earthquake west of Sumatra struck 10 nations on the Indian Ocean rim. Sri Lanka, an island nation of 19 million people, proved to be especially vulnerable.

The Sri Lankan Institute of Architects (SLIA) invited the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to bring a multidisciplinary team to the country to survey the situation and offer recommendations for long-term reconstruction. The eight-member team toured the country from April 29 to May 8, 2005. It included representatives from the American Planning Association (APA), AIA, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The goal was to maximize the benefits of the team's diverse expertise to offer the widest range of professional perspectives possible.

I represented APA together with Kathrin Moore, an urban designer from San Francisco who also is associated with Planners Without Borders. A report that discusses the team's findings and recommendations will be ready this fall. APA participated in the cooperative effort to share its knowledge of safe growth initiatives to help make Sri Lanka more disaster resistant.

At the start of the trip, we met with SLIA and the Sri Lankan government to learn about reconstruction concerns. One major concern is the government's proposed 100-meter exclusion zone along the coast. This zone extends to 200 meters in the more vulnerable eastern areas, where low-lying topography is the norm. The eastern coast directly faces the one known source of tsunami activity, the Sumatra trench that lies just west of Indonesia beneath the Indian Ocean floor. Last December, the waves spanned out from the trench following a seismic uplift and headed across 2,000 miles of the open ocean toward Sri Lanka.

While the exclusion zone may sound feasible, it presents numerous complications. One is the uneven enforcement of both past and current restrictions on building in the coastal zones. The protection afforded by such a buffer is as uneven as the offshore bathymetry and onshore topography that affect wave height and run-up. Planning tools, such as geologic tools and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), should be used to identify areas that truly need protection. Additionally, effective public outreach and coordination across regions with widely varying requirements is necessary.

Our team then met in the capital, Colombo, with planners and architects at the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and with the minister of UDA's parent agency, the Ministry of Housing and Construction. It became evident from our discussions that better coordination with nongovernmental organizations undertaking reconstruction projects is necessary to achieve the larger vision of the nation's reconstruction goals.

We spent the remainder of the week touring the coastal areas affected by the tsunami. In Galle, a historic Dutch fort complex and the Lighthouse Hotel, where we stayed, were well protected because they sit atop high promontories. Other low-lying areas, particularly along the banks of a river that empties into the Indian Ocean, were hit hard. The bleachers of a cricket stadium trapped water that poured in when the tsunami hit, killing many of the spectators. The UDA showed our team its analysis of seven "traps" within the city that were particularly deadly because of a combination of topography and built environment.

Sri Lanka's infrastructure also presents numerous vulnerabilities. A train on the coastal railroad, a legacy of British colonial days, was trapped by the second tsunami wave in Periyali, north of Galle. Many people who were not passengers took refuge aboard the train after the first wave hit. While approximately 150 people survived, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people in the train died.

Another problem is the coastal road that parallels the shore. Few perpendicular roads intersect with the coastal road, limiting inland escape routes.

On the second day, the team made a number of stops at reconstruction sites initiated by the government and NGOs. The day ended at the Yala National Park, an expansive wildlife preserve. Only a small visitors complex and hotel were built in the park to maintain ample open space for elephants, leopards, and other animals to roam. The Yala Beach Resort Hotel, a Jetwing complex, was thriving before the tsunami. Now it's mere rubble and fragments of the buildings demolished by 30-foot waves. In a matter of minutes, the tsunami took the lives of 250 guests and staff. Plans are underway to design a new facility, but for now the site is eerie. A handful of surviving staff currently live in tents while the new hotel is built.

One staff person said that before the tsunami arrived, an elephant emerged from the wilds to stomp its feet in what people deemed highly unusual behavior, and then ran away. Only later did survivors realize the elephant might have been warning people to flee.

One curious feature of the tsunami is the almost complete absence of wildlife deaths. Animals seemed to sense the oncoming danger. One possible warning mechanism for people could be a seismic warning system, similar to what is in the Pacific Ocean, as well as more education about the potential dangers. Jane Preuss, AICP, who has also been to Sri Lanka as a part of other reconnaissance teams, points out that education should not be limited to coastal areas but should be worldwide as many of the tsunami victims were tourists on vacation.

The most devastated areas tended to be on the eastern coast. In Arugam Bay, a bridge had been destroyed. To reach our hotel, the bus had to negotiate a narrow mud road over the bay after the tides receded while we trekked on foot after climbing down the broken bridge onto the mud road. The mud road remains the primary route through a formerly thriving resort community. Whole fishing communities, their livelihoods lost with boats and homes destroyed, have been rendered destitute. Areas further north also are affected by the lingering civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who only recently have agreed to a means of dividing outside aid to damaged areas. Piling tsunami damage atop the impact of such a conflict leaves aid workers with a truly daunting challenge.

At the end of our tour, we discussed with SLIA what we had seen, what resources our organizations might offer to assist with the challenges that lie ahead, and any lingering questions that we could exchange information. The team is now challenged to produce a coherent report that takes advantage of our diverse talents, offers meaningful ideas and alternatives to people who have their work cut out for them in rebuilding a beautiful, but battered nation.

Team Members
James C. Schwab, AICP, Senior Research Associate, APA, Chicago
Kathrin Moore, AICP, AIA, Principal, Moore Urban Design, San Francisco
David Downey, Director, Center for Communities by Design, AIA, Washington, D.C.
Janice Olshesky, AIA, Principal, Olshesky Design Group, Alexandria, Virginia
Thomas Schmidt, AIA, Sepia Design Consultants, Hong Kong
Terrance Brown, AIA, ASCG Inc., Albuquerque, New Mexico
Alan Fujimori, ASLA, Principal Planner, Belt Collins Hawaii Ltd., Honolulu
Steven McCutcheon, ASCE, University of Georgia, Athens