23 March 2005
When the killer tsunami struck South Asia, Mickey Howley was thousands of miles away, safe and sound in the United States.
But the tragedy had an impact on him. "I heard the death toll climb from 500 to 100,000... I realized that there was going to be a massive amount of help necessary for the recovery efforts there."
Mickey is no stranger to volunteerism. As a long-distance runner, he has participated in motivating those new to the sport achieve their goals. He has volunteered at a hospital doing outpatient release, has participated in hurricane clean-up work and gives blood regularly.
Last December, as he witnessed the horrors unfold on his television screen, his desire to help became stronger and stronger.
"When I began pointing the finger and saying to myself that someone needed to go over to Thailand to help, the finger pointed right back at me. I felt that if someone with my current personal freedom could not give up his life for a while, then who was I expecting to go?"
Because Mickey is self-employed and works as a fine finish carpenter and home remodeler, there was no boss to consult about leaving to give aid.
"I am also currently unmarried and single, enabling me to leave without affecting a significant other in an emotional way," he says.
From London to Thailand
Although he had saved up for a trip to London for 18 months, he decided to change his travel plans and go to Thailand instead, not minding that the fare would double.
After following his doctor's orders of waiting for his immunization shots to take a significant effect, Mickey left for Thailand. But not without saying goodbye to his beloved dog, Ben. Mickey still carries a photo of Ben wherever he goes.
He traveled to Thailand in the hopes of doing the jobs nobody else wanted to.
"Arriving one month after the great wave struck, I figured that those relief workers who were here from the start may be experiencing some degree of burnout, and my aim was to help in any way I could. I was prepared to give my all."
Mickey was ready for anything. In fact, he left a will before leaving Washington State, just in case something happened.
It was Mickey's first time in Thailand. "All that I had heard on the media was Phuket, Phuket, Phuket. After a couple of days of acclimation in Bangkok, I took an overnight train and then a bus to get there."
But when he arrived, things weren't what he expected. "I was, quite honestly, underwhelmed at the lack of damage compared to what I had seen and heard through the media. The wave that had hit Phuket was about 4 meters high."
He decided to ask people where the hardest-hit area was. "I received the same answer from each one-Khao Lak."
The very next day, he rode a bus to Khao Lak. "That's where I saw the devastation. The wave that hit Khao Lak was 11 meters high and traveled 4 kilometers inland in places. The destruction was unlike that which I had ever seen."
Soon after his arrival, Mickey started working with the Tsunami Volunteer Center and hasn't stopped since. He took the plunge into life in Khao Lak.
"Every moment of every day has been an unforgettable story. A year's worth of television miniseries' day and night would not even begin to scratch the surface. Eighty percent of families lost a family member. Many lost all that they owned. Currently, 6,000 men, women and children live in temporary camps in the area-all who lived in homes before the tragedy. The tremendous economic loss, which has had serious ripple effects, has added to the grief and human loss suffered here," he says.
Mickey has witnessed the Thais' quick rise from the tragedy. "I must say that in the five or six weeks that I have been here, each day I have seen another business reopen, more people in the shops and restaurants, and more traffic on the roads. The first week I was in Khao Lak, I sat in a restaurant for two hours one evening and was the only customer. In the same restaurant three weeks later, I counted 34 customers as I sat and ate. It made me feel like Khao Lak was indeed renewing itself. The area and its people are moving forward every day."
Loss and grief
Loss is not a new thing for Mickey, whose life changed after the September 11 attacks in New York. A native of New York, having grown up on Long Island for 17 years, he was at another place when the attack occurred, but witnessed the towers fall on live television. The event affected him deeply.
During that time, he was running a successful business, had four employees under him and was remodeling a 110-year-old property that he bought in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But he lost all that. "All of that slipped away from me as I slipped into a deep low caused by the 9/11 tragedy. I stayed in that trough for over two years, giving up friends and basically my entire life to grief."
It is his own sense of loss that gives him the strength to continue helping people in Thailand. "Having been well familiar with loss gave me the empathy, I believe, needed to treat my limited time here as extremely important."
Originally, Mickey had intended to stay for a month. But last Feb. 22, his return ticket expired, becoming just another piece of paper, no thanks to a no-changes policy implemented by the website that sold him his ticket.
"Currently I have no flight back to the States, but I am hoping that will take care of itself when the time comes for me to leave this beautiful country."
He is currently working on the 100 Days Tsunami Memorial, a festival that draws its roots from the Thai belief that on the 100th day after death, the grieving for lost souls is to cease, because that's when the soul is liberated from its former life to pass onto the next.
Mickey's role has been to coordinate the event through the necessary governmental processes and media sources in their aim to inform those affected that there's an opportunity to gather in an international community and to share in the moving forward of all those lives affected.
Other volunteers are currently involved in artist and performer coordination, International Tsunami Village construction and workshops coordination. The three-day weekend which starts April 4 and ends April 6 will feature events revolving around the Hope, Spirit and Renewal theme. There will be art, music and dance performers, along with survivors? expressions of spirit.
How to help
At the recent Recovery Andaman Forum, Mickey stood up and told an audience of 800 journalists and travel agents from all over the world about the project. When the forum was over, people crowded around him, asking for more information and offering help.
And there are many ways by which people could help. The Tsunami Volunteers website has a lot of information for those wishing to volunteer.
Right now, there are over 120 volunteers from all over the world at The Tsunami Volunteer Center in Khao Lak. Since late December, over 600 individuals have arrived from all parts of the globe to help. Many of these people were people who were turned away by larger relief organizations because what they can contribute is "unskilled assistance." These people found a place in Khao Lak and the Volunteer Center.
These volunteers pay for their own accommodations and food costs while the Center operates on private donations in their aim to accomplish their goals.
According to Mickey, everyone is welcome to help.
"We will not refuse an individual interested in helping and who is willing to give himself to these efforts. There is no wrong way to share goodwill-and goodwill is priceless."