It’s been nearly 12 years since interior designer Nate Berkus survived the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people, including his boyfriend, photographer Fernando Bengoechea.

“It’s a huge part of who I am,” says the author and TV host who’s focused on not living in the past or letting the tsunami be the “defining story” of his life. 

MOVING FORWARD: Surviving the tsunami that killed his boyfriend and countless others, Berkus worked to help rebuild a community. In overcoming disaster, Berkus urges others to ask for help. Photo: Tessa Neustadt

Sharing his story

Just two weeks after returning home from the disaster, Berkus shared his story with Oprah and her viewers. Oprah’s Angel Network raised millions of dollars for tsunami cleanup and rebuilding.

The money raised helped Free the Children and many nonprofits rebuild in Arugam Bay, the area where Berkus was vacationing when the tsunami occurred. They built the only two-story building in the region, used as a vocational school. They also helped locals rebuild their businesses.

“‘You have to ask for help, says Berkus, who credits counseling with helping him work through the painful emotions.’”

Oprah asked Berkus to go back to the disaster site for the rebuilding unveiling one-year after the tsunami. At first, he didn’t want to go but he quickly changed his mind, going back to the scene with his little brother and TV producers.

“It was a full circle moment, an opportunity to take back the fear and also allow me,” Berkus recalls, “the biggest gift. It made me pull my passport out again.”

A new normal

“You have to ask for help,” says Berkus, who credits counseling with helping him work through the painful emotions. His therapist told him he’d have to create a “new normal” and could laugh, find joy and love again, if he chose to do so.

The designer chose to find that joy and love. He and his husband Jeremiah Brent, who married in 2014, have a two-year-old daughter, Poppy. “It’s my sincerest, most important wish to keep my family safe,” he says.

Preparation

Berkus, now a Red Cross Ambassador, was impressed with the grace and compassion Sri Lankans had for him and other visitors: “You really saw humanity at its stripped down finest.”

He recalls how strangers gave him clothes, money and transportation. Once he got access to his resources, Berkus withdrew money and used it to help buy supplies like powdered milk and diapers. “In terms of preparedness, you can never truly prepare,” Berkus says, explaining anyone in a crisis needs to do three things: focus on survival; get food, water and shelter; and keep your wits.

“Ask yourself: What’s the smartest, most immediate need that needs to be met?” he says, “For you and the people around you. And then you just keep moving one foot at a time.”