Frida Hastrup – University of Copenhagen

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Image from Tharangambadi in Tamil Nadu, India 

Frida Hastrup

March 2010

Fieldwork in Disaster Shelter

In the coastal village of Tharangambadi in Tamil Nadu, people are still in a process of responding to the Asian tsunami that struck the place in December 2004. Numerous local and foreign organizations have operated in the village since the disaster, each contributing bits and pieces to the effort of getting the village back on its feet. In 2008, a so-called Multi-Purpose Disaster Shelter was inaugurated in the corner of the compound of a boys' hostel, run by the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. The idea of a multi-purpose disaster shelter intrigues me. What is implied in the words multi-purpose? Does the multiplicity adhere to notions of disaster or of shelter? Is it that the planners will not discriminate against different types of disaster? Is it a matter of tsunamis being equally welcome or unwelcome when compared to cyclones or flooding during the monsoon? Or do the planners mean to imply that people can use the shelter for any purpose of protection? If so, what are the potential hazards?

I have been circling the shelter for a while, and, in fact, it seems to me to have no purpose at all; no one is ever seen there, and the gates enclosing the shelter are securely locked. Yesterday, I went and talked to the warden (who, by the way, offered to teach me to play violin in the afternoons; I declined the offer as politely as I could, and the answer to the question of whether housing violin rehearsals could also be a purpose of the shelter is still blowing in the wind). Anyway, the warden explained to me why the shelter is currently not in use. It has been decided that female teaching students, studying at the local teacher training institute, will be offered the disaster shelter as a hostel for them to stay in. For now the only problem, as the warden explained, is that the compound walls around the disaster shelter have to be heightened before the young women can move in. For the time being, the shelter offers insufficient protection for the girl students - not least because the boys' hostel is the immediate neighbour. In consequence, before this particular purpose of the shelter can be fulfilled, the walls guarding the building need reinforcement. Hazards in the coastal zone of Tharangambadi come in many guises and call for diverse protective measures...