National support group for survivors, relatives and others affected by the 2004 tsunami. A study of organization and function.

Meyer, F., Storholt, T., & Hjemdal, O. K. (2008). Nasjonal støttegruppe for pårørende, overlevende og berørte etter flodbølgekatastrofen 2004. En studie av organisering og virksomhet [National support group for survivors, relatives and others affected by the 2004 tsunami. A study of organization and function.] Norwegian only. (Rapport 1/2008).


The purpose of this study has been to investigate the activity of the National support group for those affected by the tsunami either as survivors or relatives of those who were killed. We have also wished to evaluate the effects of the group’s activities on its members and to discuss what social function the support group may have had.

In order to better generalise our findings we have drawn on experiences from similar support groups that came into being after the Alexander L. Kiel- land accident, the fire on the ferry Scandinavian Star, the run aground of the speedboat Sleipner and the collision between two trains at Åsta.

The report is based on different data sources, a questionnaire among the members of the support group, interviews with key persons, written documents, and notes from a field work. The activity of the National support group is in this way illustrated by both quantitative and qualitative data (methodological triangulation).


Support groups
The national support group was formed due to the discontent the affected felt about the way the authorities handled the tsunami disaster. When the group started organising, however, the authorities actively contributed to create a good framework and to recruit new members.

A series of coinciding factors seems to be present when the affected have formed support groups after disasters and big accidents. Four factors in particular may contribute to explain how support groups came into being, namely the self-help ideology, cultural distance, problems with the investigation work and erosion of confidence. We have also seen that time, number of victims and type of disaster have been of significance.

The national support group had closer contact with central decision-makers than any former support groups had managed to establish. This may be due to the fact that in this disaster the authorities were the direct adversary of the support group. Earlier support groups had mainly had companies as their adversary. The national support group also received more recognition from their adversary then former support groups had gained and their demands were easily accepted. Whereas other support groups have had some hard fights with their adversaries, the national support group, apart from some difficulties in the beginning, had good cooperation with the authorities. This resulted in a new model for cooperation with the establishment of the secretariat for support group preparedness.

Neither the national support group nor the other support groups are ordinary permanent voluntary organisations. The number of members is reduced quickly as the problems that made the individual join the support group have decreased or been resolved. Long lasting activities – as for example the struggle for an investigation or compensation – may lead to the support groups keeping their members for long.

In the national support group there were differences in needs and interests which split the group into subgroups, the survivors and the bereaved, members of different ethnicity and citizenship, different gender and different age groups. We have also found some conflicts relating to some members being seen as representatives of their adversary or to the expansion and intensity of the support group’s activity, and person conflicts have been splitting-up.

The members both survivors and bereaved with key functions in the support group have some common characteristics. They have time, energy, managerial skills and experience. Key persons and particularly the leader may develop a middle position between the distanced professional and the engaged layman. He or she may feel isolated and lonely and the working through of traumatic stress and sorrow may be postponed.

National support group in light of the members’ expectations and experiences
If we look at the national support group in light of the members’ expectations and experiences, the effects seems rather mixed. There are marked differences between what can be characterised as self-help and what can more be characterised as pressure group activity.

Self-help activity such as journeys of the bereaved and survivors to Thailand which the support group participated in initiating and carrying through was a big success. They met the needs of the members to meet others in the same situation and helped them grieve. Other parts of the self-help activity were not that much of a success.

According to the respondents the support group to a lesser degree succeeded in creating networks and grieving groups in Norway and to give practical help and support. According to the respondents the national support group functioned well as an interest group to secure collective rights. The support group stressed that the authorities should continue the search, that the handling of the crisis should be investigated and ameliorated and to establish a secretariat for sup- port group preparedness.

In total the respondents were well pleased with the national support group even if not all parts of the activity functioned well. An explanation may be that some of the needs that these parts were directed against were taken care of by others (general practitioners, friends, authorities).

Other support groups also seem to have functioned effectively as pressure groups towards companies and authorities, for example in the fight to continue the search for missed ones or to resume investigation. As pressure groups the support groups fulfil an important need in the society by representing interests that otherwise are not represented. This has a positive effect when it comes to investigating disasters and to make the responsible responsible, if this is not done otherwise.

Support groups also play an important role to further user interests in society sectors where ordinary consumer interests are not well enough represented. This may apply to the transport sector and passenger transport at sea. Some support groups have also worked to ameliorate disaster preparedness.

The report concluded with the following recommendations:
Support groups seem to have an important function by supplementing public and professional interventions directed at the individual victim. Groups also play an important role as pressure and interest groups to further collective interests and needs. We therefore recommend that the authorities prepare for speedy setup of support groups in case of disaster and catastrophes. This can be done by giving the established secretariat good limits and that the authorities emphasise good cooperation with the authorities. The secretariat may give assistance with establishment and running of new support groups. The secretariat may also have an important function in securing a satisfactory closure of the activities of the groups to all parties.

The report also contains recommendations to the support groups. In order to take care of and balance the different needs and interests it is important that the boards of the groups have a wide representation.

In concluding we point to some substantial questions in the report for further research and recommend a more accentuated consumer perspective in research.