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Rugby pal leads firefighter to Sri Lankan relief

Darrin Coldiron and Nuwan Waidyanatha spilled blood together on the rugby fields of the University of Montana, where they were members of the mighty Jesters.

The two were friends in the way college mates often are, but not best friends. After school, they traded e-mail addresses but eventually lost touch. Waidyanatha was deported home to Sri Lanka after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because his visa had expired and America was no longer in a renewing mood.

Coldiron abandoned the low wages of Montana for a firefighting job in Spokane Valley.

In all likelihood, they probably never would have seen each other again, but the day after Christmas in 2004, a tsunami slammed into the Sri Lankan coast.

The firefighter dug up his old friend’s e-mail and dropped Waidyanatha a line, just to see if he was still alive. He had no idea if Waidyanatha would, or even could, respond, but that e-mail would launch the biggest adventure of the young firefighter’s life. Waidyanatha’s reply led to Coldiron, 36, launching a grass-roots effort to rebuild the tiny island village of Komari, Sri Lanka, one house, one school, one well at a time. And now the firefighter is taking a year off his job that pays more than $50,000 annually to see that plan through.

“It just feels right,” Coldiron said last week. “It’s where I’m needed most.”

The funny thing is, Nuwan Waidyanatha doesn’t even live in Komari, a 3,000-population fishing town that was 95 percent destroyed by tidal waves of 25 feet or more. Coldiron just felt a kindred spirit for the town when he first saw it. It was small enough to be all but forgotten by the other relief organizations in the area, but the right size for a couple of volunteers to make a real difference.

He had figured to join the Red Cross or some other nongovernmental organization when he arrived in early 2005, but the organizations he first encountered left him discouraged. Relief workers didn’t actually live among the Sri Lankans they were helping, instead staying inland at fine hotels that had avoided the waves. Daily, Coldiron would see the relief workers drive in new sport utility vehicles from the hotels to the squalor of the refugee camps, where Sri Lankans lived in tents made of blue plastic tarps.

The camps were unsanitary because there wasn’t enough room between the tents to dump waste. The still-saturated soil was nothing but mud, but Sri Lankans feared the tsunami would strike again and didn’t want to return home.

Coldiron and another volunteer, firefighter Nick Muzik, decided they’d be the first people to return to flattened Komari. They rented one of the few buildings left standing, then started cleaning up properties and forming construction crews of local residents to rebuild the town. Laborers earn about $5 a day in Komari, more than they get in free handouts from relief organizations at refugee camps. Free handouts hurt the economy, Coldiron said.

A 10-by-20-foot house costs much less than $500 to build. Some of the new homes are better than what stood before the disaster. The town has electricity now. It didn’t before the tsunami. Locals don’t pay full cost for a house, but rather are encouraged to make a donation of $20 to $50 to Coldiron’s nonprofit organization, Community Focused Disaster Response, or CFDR.

Even more than a year after CFDR first started in Komari, there is still much to be done, Coldiron said. Komari wells, the kind you might drop a bucket down for water, are still being desalinated. The group has helped build a bakery, brick foundry and two small stores, more than Komari had before the tsunami.

Distemper among dogs is still a problem, but CFDR is trying to help the animals, said volunteer Dawn Hayden, who is in Komari. And locals are still very fearful of the ocean. Hayden said the town has acquired two lap pools and she is working with another nongovernmental organization to teach residents to swim.

CFDR’s big push now is to find community leaders within Komari’s population. Civil war between the Tiger militia of the minority Tamils and the army of majority Sinhala government has left Komari with no leadership.

Coldiron hopes to build those community leaders up when he returns to the village June 1. He’s still looking for all the support Spokane can provide. Spokane Valley and Idaho schools have been particularly helpful already. And he’s looking for volunteers. Just send him an e-mail at cfdrkomari@gmail.com if you’re interested in how things are going Komari. It might just change your life.

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