THE tsunami death toll of 31,000 would have been much higher - if the rest of society did not rush to the aid of the affected the way they did.
Within minutes of the disaster, and even while it was happening people from around the wrecked coastal margin were rushing to pull the survivors to safety, the injured to hospital and donating food, clothes and medicines to those in refugee camps.
In the next few days, the authorities were still too dazed to announce any concrete action. But civilians flocked around the affected helping out at every turn.
In Colombo supermarket shelves emptied as people bought up essential stocks of rice, sugar, soap and milk powder and other essentials to distribute in camps for people displaced in the disaster.
Civilian volunteers pulled the dead out of wrecked buildings and saved the few remaining survivors. The spirit of giving had never been so strong.
A country that has seen deep sectarian divisions among its people virtually pulling it apart at the seams, suddenly saw a different side of society. People forgot their ethnic and racial divisions and biases- even for a few days- and pitched in to help with equal gusto whether in the Tamil North, or Muslim East, or Sinhala South.
One of the most unforgettable sights of the relief effort, for this writer, was in Valachchenai three days after the disaster. Convoys of villagers from the deep interior were carrying food and drinking water to the refugees along the coast. The villagers came from the troubled border areas and were mostly Sinhalese, the convoys being led by the village priest.
The refugees near that coast were a mix of Tamil and Muslim fishermen. The relief convoys crossed jungle tracks and even LTTE check points to get to the affected areas, in hand tractors, rickety trucks and old lorries.
The sight was amazing and heart warming. As was the news from Vaharai, an LTTE-held coastal area badly battered by the tsunami that many Sinhalese villagers including a Buddhist monk has stayed on for days helping the locals to recover the dead from the wreckage.
It was amazing to see this kind of bridge-building in the very areas where the civil war was fought with ferocity and had affected the lives of so many civilians.
Four months after the disaster, the situation has certainly changed. The rush for relief ebbed down and the country which was earlier, practically at a standstill now resumed 'normal' life.
But inside tsunami affected communities there is yet a great deal of local action- mainly to help each other get through personal loss and cope with the new responsibilities.
Ajith Nissanka, a 22 year old fisherman from Tangalle found himself a very young widower after the tsunami with an infant child to look after. The disaster also razed his house to the ground and destroyed his boat and implements.
He lives with his sister and the baby- just a year old- is being looked after by his sister-in-law while Nissanka struggles to regain some normalcy- a place to live and a livelihood. Many affected people today live with relatives or share their compound.
Several other widowed fishermen we met lived in their parents or siblings compound in a separate temporary shelter donated by various NGOs.
In Akurala, Hikkaduwa we met four families now living in a single house that managed to survive the tsunami with little damage. Before the tsunami they were neighbours and although some of them had erected tents on the foundations of their destroyed homes, the tents were far from livable, especially in the rain.
Across the country, in badly destroyed Kalmunai, similar informal arrangements between relatives, family members and neighbours make life marginally more comfortable for the displaced- whose only other option would have been to languish in tents, and temporary shelters in ill-designed camps until they manage to rebuild their homes.
In Batticaloa displaced fishermen and their families found they just could not live under the tin-roof temporary shelters erected for them at their relocation site. A group of them moved out to a nearby field and erected crude cadjan shelters which are much more comfortable in the heat. Many of them had lost their wives and were left with young children.
Because they now live in a closely dwelling community the women who survived the tsunami pitch in to look after the mother-less children while the men go fishing in their newly acquired boats.
The men, with the help of a local NGO, have formed a club through which they interact and share their loss, trying to come to terms with their widowhood and new responsibilities towards the children.
The most telling factor is the very small number of children who needed to be institutionalied in orphanages or homes after the disaster.
According to State records, only 37 children were admitted to institutions of the 1700 who lost both parents. This is a hugely positive indication that Sri Lankan society, regardless of geographical area and ethnicity, still retains compassion and care for victims of so tragic a disaster.
Many children have been unofficially adopted by surviving relatives and elderly grandparents. In some instances the guardians themselves are without adequate means of livelihood or support after the tsunami- like the 65 year old woman in Batticaloa who pounds rice for a living to bring up her three orphaned grandchildren.
Or the mason who did not have the means to complete his own two roomed house but was brave enough to take his seven orphaned nieces and nephews to the already crowded house and look after them.