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For Indian Coastal Town, Tsunami Ushered In Change

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ten years ago today, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 200,000 people across 14 countries. In India, the district of Nagapattinam in the south was the worst hit region. More than 6,000 people died there. Nacha Raman visited recently and filed this report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NACHA RAMAN, BYLINE: The lifeguard doesn't let up on bellowing into the public address system. He's trying to keep pilgrims, who bathe in the sea near the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, safe. Mic in one hand, he clutches a cell phone in the other to receive alerts about any abnormal meteorological events, all part of an early warning system being implemented to avert future disasters along this coast, says the district's top civil servant T. Munusamy.

T. MUNUSAMY: (Through translator) So in 154 seashore villages, the work is going on - this warning system.

RAMAN: The sea has always shaped Nagapattinam's history. Conquerors, missionaries, traders and colonizers sailed here over the past centuries, but nobody expected these waters to deliver Nagapattinam's biggest shock in this century. The scale of the tragedy prompted pilgrimage centers to provide shelter to those who had lost their homes.

The Nagore Sufi shrine even opened up its burial ground to Christians and Hindus, in addition to Muslims. Shahul Hameed Sayib, who claims to be a descendent of the Sufi saint the shrine is dedicated to, says the scores buried there have not been forgotten by their families.

SHAHUL HAMEED SAYIB: So every December on 26 they're visiting here, even in Muslim and non-Muslims all visited here.

RAMAN: This communal integration has been reinforced by mixing up different communities in housing project allotments. Nearly 20,000 new concrete houses have been built, at least 500 meters away from the sea, for families who were living in huts on the beach. The families may like their new neighbors, but they don't necessarily like their new houses. Many are unhappy with the cramped space, like Rangaian Aravindan, a 64-year-old fisherman.

RANGAIAN ARAVINDAN: (Through translator) Here we use the same space to sleep and eat. It's so much less comfortable here than where we were before.

RAMAN: And it's inconvenient for fishing.

ARAVINDAN: (Through translator) From here we can't tell what the wind and sea are like. When we lived on the beach, we knew how the wind was blowing, what the tide was like.

RAMAN: Down at the beach, fishermen return from a day at sea. They complain about having to venture out as far as neighboring Sri Lanka for a good catch, where their boats are often impounded by Sri Lankan security forces. Factor in rising fuel costs and fishing is no longer the lucrative business it used to be, says 38-year-old Govindaswamy Vijayan, but he doesn't have much choice, he adds.

GOVINDASWAMY VIJAYAN: (Through translator) We were born into this. For us, other trades aren't viable alternatives.

RAMAN: Women in the fishing community, however, are picking up the slack. Geeta Selvaraj is involved in a catering business now. Before the tsunami, her fisherman husband used to bring home $300 a month. Now he barely manages half of that, whereas her income has doubled.

GEETA SELVARAJ: (Through translator) The money we women earn is a great help to run the home because our men don't go out to sea all the time.

RAMAN: Like Geeta Selvaraj, people in the district have found ways to cope with their losses - big or small - and rebuild their lives, but they say they haven't forgotten that fateful day. For NPR News, I'm Nacha Raman in Nagapattinam, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.