Assistant Professor Survives Tsunami, Urges Americans to Help Devastated Regions

Assistant Professor Survives Tsunami, Urges Americans to Help Devastated Regions
Assistant professor of Sociology Faye Wachs survived the tsunami that struck while she and her husband were scuba diving off Ko Phi Phi island in Thailand.

It's been difficult for assistant professor of Sociology Faye Wachs to get back to her normal teaching routine. Over the past three weeks, media outlets nationwide have clambered to hear her retell the harrowing experience of how she and her husband survived the deadly tsunami while scuba diving in Thailand and witnessed the devastation of its aftermath.

Her story has made headlines in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and numerous local newspapers. She and her husband Gene Kim have appeared on CNN, ABC, CBS and National Public Radio, among other news programs.

In addition to the television, radio and print interviews, Wachs is now receiving offers to write a book or movie about her experience. She says it's something she might consider if it means being able to use the proceeds to help those countries affected by the tsunami.

In fact, Wachs sees this experience as an opportunity to remind Americans to help in providing long-term aid to the countries devastated by the tsunami.

“I feel so bad for the people who are still there — those who lived there whose homes and industries are now gone,” she says. “When you look at countries like Sri Lanka, India or Sumatra, where poverty was already endemic and now their agriculture and fishing industries, infrastructure and education are all gone, they are not in a position to rebuild all that.”

The devastated regions of the African and Asian countries are all in need of something different, according to Wachs. Aiding these countries goes beyond providing money, food and clothing for disaster relief, she says.

“Thailand is going to need more small business loans because a lot of business owners lost everything, and they have no capital for recovery. Sri Lanka was already living on the edge, and now their top soil is gone and the earth has been salted,” says Wachs. “Aid is important now, but also a year from now when they still can't grow anything and they are still psychologically devastated.”

While Americans have been contributing, more must be done for long-term recovery, says Wachs.

“Even before this devastation, a lot of Sri Lanka was already living on less than $2 per day, most people there could afford zero consumer goods and there were already clean water problems,” she says.

Wachs, a 35-year-old Santa Monica resident, has taught courses on survey methods, sociological theory and minority communities at Cal Poly Pomona since 2002. She serves as co-adviser to Alpha Kappa Delta, a sociology honor society, and adviser of the university's cheerleading squad. She is also a member of the Asian Pacific Faculty, Staff & Student Association.

Wachs and Kim were vacationing at a Thailand dive resort on Ko Phi Phi island when the earthquake and massive tsunami struck on Dec. 26. Avid scuba divers, the couple had dropped 60 feet under water near a sunken ship eight miles off the coast when the first tsunami current began to suck them down farther. At the time, they thought they were caught in a strong current.

It wasn't until hours later when they were headed back to shore and began to see debris and bodies floating in the harbor that they realized something terrible had happened. Word spread that a massive tsunami had hit and destroyed nearly the entire island. The two spent several hours helping fishermen spot bodies to bring back to land.

Upon returning to the shore, the couple assisted in caring for the injured. Well into the night, they walked through the rubble and around sink holes helping to keep signal fires lit, digging out those trapped in rubble and carrying the wounded to make-shift hospitals and transport helicopters.

“It was neat to see people all come together to help,” says Wachs. “It restored my faith in humanity.”

It wasn't until the next day when Wachs and Kim were able to take a ferry off the island, and eventually an airplane home, that they began to understand the magnitude of the disaster.

“We didn't know the devastation,” says Wachs. “We just thought maybe a few small islands had been hit and we didn't understand why more rescue workers hadn't come to help us sooner.”

Frequently, Wachs has been asked why she believes she lived while more than 160,000 people died due to the tsunami.

“There is no reason my husband and I survived except that we were just very lucky,” she says.

Wachs is now back in the classroom sharing her experience with her students. She has begun receiving therapy and, she says, repeating the details of her experience is draining while at the same time cathartic. She recently received an e-mail from a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo faculty member who is interested in working with her to set up a type of aid program for the victims in Thailand. While Wachs is definitely interested in working with others to help the Asian countries in need, she is still trying to catch her breath after returning.

“I told him I just need a week to catch up and then we can talk about it,” she says.

For more information on donating to the university's tsunami relief fund, visit click here.