By Craig Coleman
MONMOUTH -- Joe Penna had seen the news footage and heard the stories of devastation caused by the earthquake-triggered tsunamis in Southeast Asia in December.
It wasn't until after his plane touched down on the island of Phuket on the southern tip of Thailand, and he later made his way along its coastline, that he began to comprehend the scope of the damage.
Almost every beach-front shop, caf‚ and bungalow on popular Nai Yang beach had been leveled by 30-foot waves. Resorts and hotels had once lined the beaches of Khao Lak, 100 kilometers to the north; Now, "There was nothing but trees with roots exposed, where five feet of sand had been swept away," Penna said.
The exotic beauty of the country and the hospitality of its people have drawn Penna to Thailand annually for the past five years. After the tsunami, he said, he felt compelled to give something back.
Penna, who lives in Dallas and practices law in Monmouth, flew to Thailand on a small-scale humanitarian mission in early January, armed with $12,000 collected from about 50 friends and family members across the Northwest.
Penna and friend David Riddell of Monmouth traveled to some of the resort communities and small villages they've been to in the past, distributing money to those most in need. Cash went for everything from new uniforms for school kids to motors for the boats of local fishermen.
"We knew we couldn't do much in the way of immediate help in rebuilding because of the enormity of the loss," Penna said. "So our intent was to focus on the local needs, to help people in the areas we were familiar with."
Eleven nations were ravaged and more than 200,000 people were killed or are missing as a result of December's tsunami. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history.
About 5,500 people were killed in the southern province of Phang Nga and the island of Phuket.
Penna first visited Phuket's Nai Yang beach, where almost all of the stick-built bungalows, gift shops and caf‚s were destroyed. Despite the damage, most merchants and caf‚ owners were in the process of rebuilding when he arrived, he said.
"The Thai people are remarkably resilient," Penna said. "We were told only one resident of Nai Yang lost her life, a tailor who, while others fled, returned to her shop to retrieve her wallet."
Penna said friends made from previous trips to Thailand put him in contact with people most in need of relief.
He and Riddell purchased uniforms for 180 students at the Wat Koshirai School on Patong beach, flooded during the disaster.
They found seven fishermen who had lost their boats in the tsunami; each of them was given $100, the equivalent of more than a month's pay. Other people were given cash, clothing and personal care kits.
"Helpless and humbled" was how Penna described his emotions during a visit to the ravaged beaches of Khao Lak, where scores of people who had been playing in the surf -- many of them children -- were caught in the giant waves.
The tsunamis left a "path of ruin" that stretched more than two kilometers inland from the shoreline, he said.
Penna used a video camera during the excursion to help document the locals' stories. Many were tragic.
"In one fishing village we visited that had lost 419 residents, we were told that occasionally, someone will spontaneously start running away from the sea," he said. "And the others will instinctively follow for no apparent reason."
Other tales were more uplifting. In Nai Yang, community members said their resident celebrity, a 100-year-old Asian elephant named Tong Bai who tourists pay to feed and ride, snapped his chain and bolted to safety before the waves hit.
Penna and Riddell also heard from a Nai Yang fisherman who said he was just offshore in his longtail boat when the waves began to roll in.
He and his vessel were drawn into a wave that carried them inland before depositing them in the branches of a 20-foot-tall tree.
The fisherman was given a new motor for his boat.
The backbone of Thailand's economy, tourism, has been greatly affected. Almost half of the recorded deaths in the country were European vacationers.
While the government and relief agencies are working to get food and shelter to displaced people, Penna said what Thailand really needs is for the tourists to return.
"We are already making plans to come back again within a year to see how people here are doing and to continue to help them out," said Penna.