UAA professor volunteers in Thailand

Assistant professor Hermann Gruenwald spoke Jan. 17 to an upper-division logistics class about his weeklong experience as a volunteer in Thailand after the Dec. 26 tsunami.

“Logistics is how to move things from one point to another,” said Oliver Hedgepeth, head of UAA’s logistics program, in an introductory speech. Gruenwald volunteered in Thailand to help military and other organizations with disaster-relief logistics, Hedgepeth said.

Gruenwald had been in Bangkok for three days preparing for a presentation about military logistics for a Global Business Development Institute international conference when the tsunami hit South Asia. Bangkok, the inland capital of Thailand, was not physically affected by the tsunami but suffered the disaster’s psychological effects with the rest of the country. Gruenwald said people living in the poor, southern, low-lying areas that were destroyed by the tsunami had family members living to Bangkok for work. Gruenwald volunteered independently to join in the disaster relief effort.

“It just came up and they asked for volunteers,” Gruenwald said.

Twenty volunteers were organized at Don Muang military airport to collect donations before moving to Krabi, one of the affected areas. Gruenwald and the other volunteers waited at Don Muang for three days for a plane to Krabi. While waiting, Gruenwald organized all the donations that were collected and left there. The problem was not an insufficiency of donations.

“You saw people literally dumping the stuff in there,” Gruenwald said.

Gruenwald said donations management and general management are major issues in disaster relief programs.

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“You’ve got a disaster like that and suddenly people forget all the basics,” Gruenwald said. No forklifts or same-size boxes were available for the volunteers to package and move the mass of donations sent to Don Muang.

Many of the donations were in-kind rather than monetary. In-kind donations are actual supplies, such as toilet paper, water, food and clothing.

Included in the stockpile of donations were a large number of coffins, given to those who lost friends and family in the tsunami. Coffins were also donated because the Thai consider them the greatest philanthropic supply; they’re given to people who have no way to repay, Gruenwald said.

One of Gruenwald’s most intense moments during his week was associated with these donations.

“I think it was looking into the casket and seeing a white pillow with a teddy bear on it,” Gruenwald said.

Though many people came to Don Muang to help, there were only 20 official volunteers.

“That was the sad part, only 20 civilians showed up. There’s half a million people living there, and everyone wants to help, but nobody wants to get their hands dirty,” Gruenwald said.

The 20 volunteers left for Krabi to collect and ship medical and funeral supplies that they would need for their three-day rescue work on Phi Phi Island, where the American movie “The Beach” was filmed.

“At Phi Phi there was no infrastructure. It was totally destroyed,” Gruenwald said.

The word “rescue” has a different meaning for Thai people than it does for Americans. Rescue teams pick up dead bodies, Gruenwald said.

Most of the bodies were buried under the shore, which had moved four feet inland. The rescue teams worked in flip-flop sandals and occasionally rubber gloves as they recovered a body every 10 minutes.

“I’m very impressed by the rescue workers,” Gruenwald said. “It was very rapid and people worked very hard,”

Temples, serving as temporary morgues because they were walled, protected and respected by people, housed the bodies, Gruenwald said.

Neighborhood dogs growled at Gruenwald as he walked back to his temporary housing on Phi Phi. The local Thai claimed the dogs could smell the dead spirits, Gruenwald said.

Disaster mortuary teams, called Dmort, made up of criminal investigators and funeral directors would post photographs of found bodies and include special identification marks like tattoos and jewelry. People searching for missing friends and family would post pictures of the missing taken before the tsunami and search the photographs of recovered bodies on four different Web sites.

Bodies found in Thailand, however, were affected by being underwater for several days, causing them to expand two to three times their normal size and changing skin colors to green and gray.

Because not enough refrigerated trucks were available to store all the bodies, Gruenwald said some rescue workers buried bodies believed to be Thai. Foreigners were identified by neckties, but more than 800 bodies were later exhumed because their appearance had been so altered by the water’s effects.

“I think I lost some pants. And some weight. And shoes, you wouldn’t want those shoes,” Gruenwald said.

Bill Lokey, a member of the disaster relief organization Federal Emergency Management Agency, also spoke at Gruenwald’s presentation.

“(A disaster is) when it gets so bad it goes beyond our capability to respond to it,” Lokey said.

Lokey said there are many threats that affect everyone’s life and knowing about your environment, having a disaster plan and being connected to your community are important to being able to survive a disaster.

“Five minutes before the party ends is not the time to learn to dance,” Lokey said.

Lokey said aid agencies would rather receive monetary donations than in-kind donations because donated funds are more flexible and can be used to purchase actual supplies at a cheaper price. Monetary donations also help sustain the economies of disaster-struck areas by maintaining some level of commerce.

More information about FEMA is available online at