It hardly seems appropriate to talk about anything else without at least mentioning what is probably the worst natural disaster in the last decade — the tsunami (“tidal wave”) that struck the Indian Ocean coasts of 11 countries after a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake.
As I write this, the current death toll estimate is 45,000 with 27,000 confirmed dead already. The total could go up as they find more bodies, or down as people “unaccounted for” show up alive. Pray for more of the second than the first. Both will no doubt happen — recall that on Sept. 11, 2001, the estimated death toll from the terrorist attack kept dropping as people who escaped the buildings (or were not there as expected) checked in.
There is some good news — lots of people survived. Of course, if it hadn’t happened, they would all have survived, so calling this “good news” is a relative thing. There is a collection of amazing survivor stories here, complete with text messages sent by cellphone from a scuba diver who ended up stranded on the roof of a hotel to her family in England. There is also a story of an entire family that survived even though their house got hit; they found their 20-day-old baby alive on a floating mattress. And, of course, there is the celebrity angle. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was on vacation in Sri Lanka; he survived but was stranded and rescued by the Sri Lankan Air Force. Also, a famous model survived by hanging onto a tree for eight hours with a broken pelvis and internal injuries. After initial reports of dead bodies stuck in trees, it’s nice to hear some of those people stuck in trees are alive. It’s not so nice to hear that her boyfriend is still missing, like tens of thousands of other people.
What could have been done?
We think of natural disasters as unavoidable, but they are not completely so. I mean, the events themselves are unavoidable, but the extent to which they become disasters is not.
Tsunamis are normally caused by earthquakes, and there is a delay between the time of the earthquake and the time the big wave actually hits the shore. The time is shorter if the earthquake is close to shore, but in that case the wave is usually smaller, too. So, there is potentially more time to warn people when you need to warn more people.
There is a tsunami warning system in place for the Pacific — the Tsunami Warning System, including the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. The system consists of underwater pressure sensors on the ocean floor, wave gauges attached to buoys, and satellite communications to tie it all to the monitoring stations. Twenty-six nations participate in the ICC, even North Korea, which normally doesn’t participate in anything with anybody. It seems like a good system, and while it’s probably expensive, it probably pays for itself the first time it gets a bunch of people out of the way of one of these things.
The reason there is a warning system in the Pacific and not the Indian Ocean is that most of the tsunamis happen in the Pacific. The system is expensive enough that nobody wants to put it in where it’s not needed. Tsunamis are fairly rare in the Indian Ocean — according to VOA, the last one in the Indian Ocean was “probably” in 1883 — 121 years ago. Knowing only what they knew before the recent disaster, India decided long ago not to spend the money to set up an Indian Ocean system. Knowing what we know now, that looks like a bad decision — but they had to make the decision based on what was known then, including what other disasters they could have — and perhaps did — spend that same money to mitigate. It’s possible that by spending money to avoid an unlikely tsunami, they had it to spend on flood relief during monsoon season. We will probably never know for sure, but it’s a good bet that an Indian Ocean system well be set up shortly, and in place for the next tsunami, whether it’s 5 years of 125 years from now.