Radio Tsunami:

Phuket, 2004



Shortly after the announcement by the Phuket Local Radio, every hill in Phuket was filled with people; all paths to the hills were jam-packed with traffic. Some people took refuge in palm trees in preparation for more giant waves to come.


An hour after the announcement, the radio host was swamped with calls on where to pick up the 6 wheelers.


Again, the radio station got calls from 6 different local trucking companies that wanted to donate their trucks, lumbers, and other building materials.

Local village radios, it turned out, was the most essential instrument in saving lives and coordinating recovery during the 2004 tsunami disaster in Thailand. Many amateur village radio hosts had turned their stations into informal coordination centers. It was a decentralized approach in handling a natural disaster.

Eyewitnesses had told me that cellular phones were out of service for a week after the tsunami. Their towers and networking centers were swept away by the waves. The government bureaucracies were too slow to do anything. An hour late – not to mention a day of “quick” paper works – means that hundreds of lives could be lost.

Ampon Keawnuo was the manager for CODI's (Community Organization Development Institute) southern operation. Before he joined CODI, he was an editor of a well-known local newspaper in the south. He and his family were at home in Phuket when the tsunami came. They were not in the coastal areas. He didn’t feel any movement or shaking; he was only made aware of the situation when a mini truck drove around – with a loud speaker – announcing that a giant wave had hit the shore. The entire area was submerged. Then he turned on the radio and found out that there were a few people missing. It didn’t sound so serious at first. The radio reported that there were about 70 people missing. He immediately put on his glasses and drove up to a high bridge so that he could see the extent of the damages. He made a note of what he saw that day. It was no different from what he had heard from the Phuket Local Radio.

“We were in Phuket, listening to various village radio stations,” Ampon observes. “For weeks, we listened to the radio all day and night because other sources of news were not providing sufficient up-to-date coverage.” The initial 70 missing people turned out to be 700 bodies; then it became 3,000 bodies; and then it climbed to 7,000 and 10,000. The dead bodies kept piling up.

Unfortunately, most mainstream commercial radio stations were still running The Millionaire game show topped with soap operas during the prime time. There were at least 10,000 people missing at that time, and yet the audiences were only offered a glimpse of what would happen in the next episode of The Secret Wife.

Ampon and several of his friends, who were working as community organizers, had contacted each other via a land telephone. The land line was working – much to their surprise. They decided to do a brainstorming session in the province of Trang.

Two days later the group decided that a 28 acre piece of land - belonging to the Department of Mineral Resources – should be used as a temporary center for regrouping the families that were dispersed by the tsunami. It was situated at a one of the worst hit area called Baan Num Chem (Salt Water Village). So the center was named the Salt Water Village.


Within 4 days, the center had amassed a population of 4,000. It became an instant city. Most of the people soon found out that they had lost a family member.

“I remember that at midnight, after the bustling rescue activities had subsided, reality started to sink in,” says Ampon. “It was then that people started to crawl out of their tents and huts to look at the sea. Their eyes were watery. They were replaying the memories of their dead son and daughter and mother and father.”

In the mist of sorrow and lost, donations started to pour in from various organizations. The most timely donation, however, were done through the village radios. Small donors – some gave only 100 baht or less – added up to a large chunk of money. Since most village radios operated locally, they could cater the donation directly to local people who were in need. It was a continuous stream of 24-hour cash flow.

“WE NOW HAVE RECEIVED A TOTAL OF 7,000 BAHT IN THE LAST HOUR,” announced the radio host. Several calls were heard after the announcement as to where the money should be spent. There were no one in charge of the money; the whole process was done by consensus. It was based on trust and feedback.

“Most big donors – international ones – wanted hotel accommodations and comfort; they also set conditions with which to receive their money,” says Ampon. “For example, when they donated money for new houses, they also wanted their own design to go with it. Some donors even wanted to have a ‘virgin’ site where no other donors had previously touched.”

“We told them that there was no such site, and that we must all help those who were in need,” says Ampon. There was a sense that the big donors were using disasters as a platform to launch their own marketing campaign. By the time an agreement was reached on how to spend their money, everything had already been taken care of.

The Thai government, strangely, had made an announcement that they did not want any help from foreign governments. They were right in this regard. And consequently, Thailand was among the fastest countries to recover from the tsunami. It was forced to use small decentralized local networking - and the village radios - to coordinate materials, goods, and labor. Since most of the efforts were based on individual volunteers - facilitated by the radio hosts - any problem could be fixed whenever it was spotted. There was no overarching authority that controlled what people do.

“Army personals were sent to the rescue site. But they were slow. When they see a problem, they must first report it to their superiors so that they would be allowed to fix it. It was not a spontaneous effort,” says Ampon.

“At first, we thought that the army should be able to be deployed rapidly. We believed in the centralized command-response structure. But we were wrong,” suggests Ampon. “The volunteers came and finished temporary houses in 2 days. Then they went back home and another set of volunteer came to finish more houses. It was a 24-hour effort. The army could not cope with that. They have to rest at night.”

While living in their temporary housing, some villagers realized that they had become landless. Title deeds – belonging absentee owners - suddenly popped out of nowhere as businessmen and developers took this golden opportunity to assert their rights to the land.

In the past, the government was careless in issuing land titles. Most bureaucrats didn’t bother to get out of their offices; they didn’t even check to see if there were people living on the land in question. As a result, the land titles were issued over areas that were already populated with people. Many people who had been living on a piece of land for hundreds of years were evicted because they didn’t have the proper papers. They were the native inhabitants of the area.

At a cape area in the Salt Water Village, there were fierce dispute over a large - 500 rai - piece of land. The developers wanted to develop new hotels and resorts for tourists. It was a lucrative business. Each acre of land runs at 10 million baht. In Pang Nga, many local politicians and journalists - who fought on behalf of the natives inhabitants - were assassinated. No one was arrested.

Tourism was everything to these Mafiosi. Right after the tsunami, some tourist companies were complaining that the radio hosts were reporting “too much” on the tsunami issues; it would turn the tourists away from joining their scuba-diving businesses.

At places where there was no land disputes, people wanted to rebuild their houses. But they had only canvas tents and their bare hands to work with. Everything else was swept away by the wave. Their first reaction was to turn to the government for help.

Most government agencies tend to have one standardized housing design for all families; they were prefabricated houses. Each household was given a 20 square meter floor space. Care was taken to make sure that a family of 2 had the exact same amount of floor space as a family of ten. “Some people laughed when they heard of such an egalitarian measure,” says a local school teacher. “Many folks here had a large piece of land and a large family; why not build a bigger house?”

The government houses were built miles away from the original beach area; “safely away from another tsunami” – they said. This made it difficult for the fishermen who needed to live near the sea. The new prefabricated houses also needed to be transported from Bangkok. It actually cost a lot more in time and energy.

The locals said that they could build their own houses – according to their own taste and need – in two days if materials were provided.

“By allowing the folks to build their own houses, it eliminates one of the most widespread problems of mass housing – vacancy,” says Ampon. “People simply don’t live in places they don’t like. When the villagers designed their own houses, one could be certain that they will be occupied.” The Community Organization Development Institute (CODI) had provided assistance in building this type of non-standardized housing.

The entire cost for constructing a temporary housing was 20,000 baht. “The government had allocated only 30,000 baht per house for those who wanted to build their own houses. I believe that was too little. The figure should be more like 100,000 per house,” says Ampon.

The best approach to the housing problem was to first start with the families and the community. Those who wanted to live as neighbors should immediately form working groups. The working groups should be formed prior to any discussion of housing and planning design. At the Salt Water Village, we have several approaches for those who own land and those who were renters. After the villagers had decided who they want to live with, the process of building would begin.

The radio hosts were the facilitators during the entire construction process. He told his audience how many houses were completed; what materials were being used. He told them what construction techniques were implemented in what village. And he told them the average cost per house.

The radio host, in essence, was the real architect during the process of reconstruction. A fisherman might call in to provide information and feedback about how he built his house; and the radio host, in turn, would feed the information back to a larger audience – the villagers. It was an iterative process which ended beautifully.

“At one point, an official came from Bangkok to look at our new village,” says Ampon. “He asked: Where was the head manager? I told him that there was none; the villagers were allowed to coordinate things among themselves. This might sound messy and chaotic, but in the end, the recovery was fast.”

A year later - in 2005- one the most developed country in the world would face a similar disaster; it would face a hurricane that would flood its entire city. How it responded to the aftermath of the hurricane was equally well-documented. Unlike the tsunami, the name Hurricane Katrina now conjures up a tragedy with a much higher magnitude - it was an “unnecessary” tragedy.