Nate barely survived the tsunami.

In December 2004, a deadly East Asian tsunami killed an estimated 181,000 people. Decorator Nate Berkus was vacationing in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, with his partner, Fernando Bengoechea, when the gigantic wave hit. Nate barely survived, but tragically, Fernando did not.

Just two weeks later, Nate shared his harrowing experience on The Oprah Winfrey Show. His vivid firsthand account put a face on the horror millions of viewers were witnessing halfway around the world.

In March 2006, Nate made an emotional journey back to the remote island where his life changed forever.  A tough decision
Nate travels back to Sri Lanka.

When Nate got a call from The Oprah Show producers asking him to return to Sri Lanka for a follow-up, he says he wasn't the least bit interested. "I think mentally I had associated everything scary and bad and loss and grief with that area geographically," Nate says. "So my initial reaction was, 'No, I'm too scared. I don't want to do it.'" Then, Nate says he had a change of heart. "Within an hour, I had changed my mind and realized that what I feared the most would probably be the biggest gift that I would receive," Nate says.

So Nate embarks on a 20-hour flight halfway around the globe to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, and the city where he stayed for six days after surviving the tsunami.
Nate thanks a special doctor.

For two days after the deadly tsunami, Nate went without food and water. Eventually, he was airlifted from the tiny resort town of Arugam Bay to a hospital in Ampara. Nate returns to the hospital to thank a special doctor who came to his assistance.

In shock and wearing only shorts, Nate says Dr. Jayasinghe provided him with a clean shirt and flip-flops. It was a simple act of kindness that left a lasting impression on Nate.

"I couldn't believe how great that was—I actually started to cry when you gave me the shirt," Nate tells Dr. Jayasinghe. "The one thing that I was very touched by was the kindness of everyone here in your country. You're a hero to me, so thank you so much."
Nate at the Stardust Hotel

On December 26, 2004, at 9:30 in the morning, Nate and Fernando were in a beachfront cabana at the Stardust Hotel when disaster struck. Nate and Fernando were swept away by the surge of the tsunami and became separated. It was the last time Nate ever saw Fernando.

Now, Nate returns to the spot where the cabana he and Fernando stayed in once stood. He is greeted by Merete, the owner of the Stardust and fellow survivor. A visit with Merete, who lost her husband of 26 years, Per, in the tsunami, reminds Nate that life goes on.
Nate at the spot he was rescued

Nate survived the tsunami by making his way to a hilltop where he joined dozens of other bewildered survivors. He returns to the hilltop clearing where they waited to be rescued for two days.

Due to the higher elevation, Nate says many people flocked to this spot in hopes of reuniting with loved ones. Sadly, it also became the spot where countless dead bodies were laid out. "It's definitely hard for me to be standing where I am right now," Nate says.
Nate by the Indian Ocean

For Nate, returning to Sri Lanka meant facing painful memories, fears and understandable anxieties. Nate says he made an important realization too. "As soon as I arrived, Fernando wasn't there either—he's [in my heart]," Nate says. "When you lose somebody, it's not geographical. That space doesn't have the power over me that I thought it did."
Mercy Corps gives small businesses a boost.

Nate says he felt a kinship with all the people in Sri Lanka who, he says, are very resilient.

"It was a veneer of survival that I think everyone has when they've experienced something like that, but it wasn't wafer thin," Nate says. "It was living life again with a sense of purpose, a sense of forgiveness for having survived."

Part of Nate's mission was also to report back on the progress of Oprah's Angel Network's tsunami projects, led by three international charities. Mercy Corps is helping small businesses get back on their feet and boost local tourism. When the tsunami hit, there were only five hotels left standing. One year later, there are 42 hotels and 53 restaurants.

Thanks to Mercy Corps, this 70-year-old widow can run her tea shop on the beach, serving breakfast to fishermen. And a baker whose shop was flattened is back baking 600 loaves of bread a day.
Houses built by Habitat

Donations to Oprah's Angel Network also went to the local Habitat for Humanity, where volunteers are building 150 homes for those who lost everything. Happy families have moved in to 50 houses so far. One new homeowner, who lost his wife and 4-year-old daughter in the tsunami, says, "I have the greatest satisfaction and security now that I have moved into the new house."

"This really represents a future for him and his family," Nate says. "That's why I'm back here conquering my own fears, dealing with my own issues, to walk the streets again and see exactly what's been done since I left last time."
Free the Children's learning center

Free The Children built the Oprah's Angel Network Center for Learning, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. The school is built entirely of galvanized steel, strong enough to withstand another tsunami. Of the 200 students in attendance, half are women.

One 20-year-old student says the classes have offered her the chance to learn outside of the home that typically is not encouraged by her culture. "Because of the center, we would be able to get our certificates and work and take care of our families," she says. "This makes us really happy. It is a really big blessing for us."
FROM: Surviving the Tsunami: Nate Returns to Sri Lanka
Published on May 15, 2006


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