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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 31, 2005

PHOTO: Last year while in Thailand, the Scott McNabb family recreated a pose they struck in 1990 on the steps of Wat Phra That temple, located on the summit of Doi Suthep mountain in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. Seated, from left, in both photos are son Kirk, son Darren, wife Terry, Scott and daughter, Anna.

Professor Who Dodged Tsunami Returning To Thailand To Help

A quirk of cartography may have saved the lives of University of Iowa education professor Scott McNabb and his family, placing them on the side of Thailand opposite where the deadly tsunami struck last month.

In March, McNabb will return to southern Thailand to help in the reconstruction of damaged elementary schools, efforts which aid workers say are desperately needed to help the children traumatized by the tsunami -- many of them orphans -- return to some state of normalcy.

McNabb and Paul Greenough, UI professor of history and global studies who was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit there and visited some of the devastated coastal regions, will take part in a forum Wednesday, Feb. 2 on the social, political and psychological ramifications of the Asian tsunami, not just for the people directly involved, but for the entire world community. The forum, which is free and open to the public, is being sponsored by the Global Issues Network and begins at 7 p.m. in Iowa City Public Library Meeting Room A.

More information about the forum can be found in a press release issued by the GIN and posted on the UI's Tsunami Aid website at

An associate professor in the UI College of Education's Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies, McNabb's relationship with Thailand dates back more than 35 years. From 1968-1971 he was a Peace Corps volunteer at Thammasat University, and he has made many return trips since then for research, consulting and teaching work.

During 1990-91 he had a Fulbright research grant at Payap University and took along his entire family: his wife, Terry, an associate professor at Coe College; his two sons, Kirk and Darren, who were 8 and 5 at the time; and his daughter, Anna, who was just 3.

Over the years the McNabbs have maintained their connections to Thailand and particularly their fond memories of their year in Chiang Mai. Terry took a group of 14 Coe students to Chiang Mai in 2003. Last year they decided to make a return family visit. They hoped to retrace some of their steps, see old friends, revisit favorite temples and other sites and maybe stay on a beautiful stretch of beach where they had spent Christmas in 1990.

Scott McNabb remembered the general vicinity of Emerald Beach, but his research turned up no information about the area. He says the beach may have been developed commercially since he last visited, been renamed or was simply left off modern maps because in an country ringed by beautiful beaches it was deemed too small and insignificant for the guidebooks. So he gave up the search and chose instead to go to a tiny island off of Thailand's east coast called Koh Phangan.

On the morning of Dec. 26, in a small bungalow just a stone's throw from the water, McNabb felt a tremor through the floorboards. It wasn't until he turned on CNN that he learned that a massive underwater earthquake had spawned a tsunami that swept away thousands of men, women and children and obliterated large swaths of developed and undeveloped land on the western side of the Thai peninsula -- including, quite possibly, Emerald Beach.

The Emerald Beach of McNabb's memories was located near the city of Krabi, just across the Strait of Alacca from Phuket, one of the Thailand's hardest-hit areas.

"We were just 150 miles away from Phuket, as the crow flies, and our bungalow was just 50 feet from the water," McNabb said. "If the earthquake had hit further east, the Gulf of Thailand would have been directly affected, and we would have been very vulnerable. We could have been swept away."

As the number of dead rose into the tens and then hundreds of thousands, McNabb said he and his family felt a sense of survivor's guilt, a feeling that lingers to this day.

"It has been very difficult for us to comprehend that at the same time that we were enjoying our family adventure in southern Thailand, on the other side of the country thousands of people were suffering from a huge natural disaster," he said. "We were geographically close but physically completely unaffected."

McNabb knew that he was in an especially good position to provide assistance, given his deep familiarity with the country, connections cultivated through the Peace Corps and his research and his fluency in Thai. In recent years, McNabb has been a consultant to the Thai Ministry of Education on non-formal education projects and is currently serving as U.S. evaluator on a project to develop community colleges in Thailand.

Although his family flew out of the country within a couple days of the tsunami, McNabb began planning his return to Thailand almost immediately after arriving in the United States. But what to do, exactly?

Through the years McNabb has developed contacts with a network of friends, educators and activists, including Carolyn Nickels-Cox, leader of a group of ex-Peace Corps volunteers called Friends of Thailand. Soon after the Asian tsunami struck, Nickels-Cox sent out emails seeking financial support for Project Restore, which is rebuilding two elementary schools in Phang Nga Province.

Because of Project Restore's focused mission, and the absence of an organizational structure that could drain away a portion of the funding, all money donated will go directly toward rebuilding the schools, McNabb said.

McNabb is on sabbatical this semester, and he had originally planned to spend a month of his spring term conducting research in Thailand. With the approval of Education Dean Sandra Bowman Damico, however, he made a change of plans. 

In March, McNabb will fly to Thailand to volunteer with relief and reconstruction efforts at the Ban Bang Muang and Bang Bang Sak elementary schools. Some Iowa City K-12 educators are working with their classes to collect supplies for the schools, and when McNabb returns he hopes to talk to the students about his experience and show them video and photos from the trip.

"This way local students can feel like they're making a direct connection with the people in Thailand," McNabb said.

For more information on Project Restore, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Media: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007,