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January 18, 2005

University Reaches Out
To Victims Of Tsunami

UConn statistics professor Nitis Mukhopadhyay, his wife, and two sons arrived in Sri Lanka at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day. They were there for an international statistics conference co-sponsored by UConn and co-chaired by Mukhopadhyay.

“The foreign and Sri Lankan delegates started arriving in and around Kandy on Dec. 25,” Mukhopadhyay said. “The air was becoming more festive by the hour. After all, no international statistical conference of this magnitude ever took place on Sri Lankan soil as far as anyone could remember.” The invited speakers and other participants came from all over the world.

Then, the unthinkable happened. In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, the tsunami hit the Sri Lankan coast.

“It was impossible to fathom the destruction and the toll on human lives,” said Mukhopadhyay. “All over the world, people felt numbed, and the Sri Lankans were no exception. Everyone was quickly engulfed by a horrific sense of disbelief and helplessness.”

He said the conference, though muted, went on. The full horror of the tsunami struck him and his family a few days later.

“My colleagues took us to some of the ‘not-so-badly’ devastated areas,” he said. “Many areas were out of reach and many others were blacked out for all tourists and news people because there were too many unrecovered bodies and body parts inside piled debris. Still, we saw unbelievable devastation. House after house after house was wiped out. Nobody knew where people were. There were teddy bears lying here and there. I saw one baby shoe. There was a strong smell of death and some lonesome people were sitting around dazed. We felt so helpless, hopeless, and lost for words.”

In a memo sent to the University community Jan. 3, President Philip E. Austin said, “All of us at UConn share the world’s grief at the devastating tragedy resulting from last month’s earthquake and tsunami. It is difficult to comprehend a disaster of such staggering proportions, but even more difficult to bear is the realization that it is likely that family or friends of some members of our own international community might have been among the victims. ... I know I speak for all members of our community in expressing heartfelt sympathies to everyone affected by this terrible catastrophe.”

In Storrs and Farmington, UConn faculty and staff are working to do what they can.

Two Emergency Department physicians from the Health Center, Dr. Robert Fuller, medical director and an assistant professor of emergency medicine and traumatology, and Dr. Matt Howell, a clinical faculty member, flew to Indonesia to offer medical assistance. The pair, both members of the International Medical Corps, are in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, one of the most devastated areas of Indonesia, for three weeks.

At the Health Center, staff in the Community Based Education Program and the Center for International Community Health Studies, and the Student World Health Interest Group organized a fund-raising event for AmeriCares, a Connecticut-based humanitarian relief organization that is working in all the affected countries.

In Storrs, the International Center and Student Health Services staff offered advice and counseling to stricken students, with all fees waived at Health Services.

Linda Rogers, an associate at the UConn Alumni Association, auctioned six pieces of her art on behalf of AmeriCares. Larry Druckenbrod, a career services advisor, began a fund-raising effort for the international relief organization UNICEF. He continues to accept contributions, which may be sent to him at Unit 2051.

The International Center on the Storrs campus has helped organize students from many of the affected countries, and has built a tsunami relief webpage – – with links to a range of organizations that are accepting donations.

Sanjeewa Karunaratne, a Sri Lankan graduate student, says staff at the center helped obtain 30 boxes of medical supplies from a Vernon company, as well as donations from the community and the UConn Co-op. The University is loaning the group a bus and driver to take the clothing and supplies to the Staten Island, N.Y., Buddhist Vihara, where it will be shipped to Sri Lanka.

Karunaratne, who lost three relatives in the tsunami, says he and a dozen other Sri Lankan students will remain in Storrs for now rather than returning home. They feel they can accomplish more to help their country by mobilizing support from here.

“With help from the Sri Lankan government and volunteers, a basic house there can be built for $400,” he says. “Eighty thousand houses were destroyed on the coast.”