Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Thoughts On A Tsunami

The news is full of the aftermath of the Sumatran quake, and I've been doing some thinking about it. All the following is pure speculation, none of it on any special knowledge or information.

The media are always shy about real casualty figures, but I will not be surprised if the numbers reach 250,000 500,000. After all, this is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. It's hard to see how they could avoid damage from the tsunami. For example, the Maldives, which was right in the path of the wave, consists of some 1,200 coral atolls, with 80% of the land less than a meter above sea level. Many of the islands had to be completely under water. Then there is Bangladesh, right at the apex of the Bay of Bengal, which would have been the mouth of the gun barrel, so to speak. Southern Bangladesh consists of the Ganges River Delta, a maze of waterways, islands, and flood plain, all of which is close to sea level. The wave that reached India was reported to as high as ten meters.

Given the frequency of earthquakes in the region, tsunamis must occur every generation or so. So this isn't a new experience. Everyone talks about the lack of a warning system, but what do you call it when the ground shakes like it was on ball bearings? That wouldn't tell them when a wave would come, but it should have been a signal to either head for the hills (if there were hills to be found), or get to a radio to find out when to head to the hills. But reading the reports, it doesn't seem that anyone got the hint. It is inconceivable that no one in the region had a clue. It must be that the media just don't find people with foresight newsworthy. Right?

Update: Seems that the wild animals figured it out. "I am finding bodies of humans, but I have yet to see a dead animal," said Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, owner of a hotel within Sri Lanka's Yala National Park. According to Australian Museum archaeologist Robin Torrence, communities that maintain their oral history are less vulnerable to disasters. "When the Rabaul volcano went off in 1994, people had passed on stories and people knew what to do. They saw the water drawing back and they ran."

As I alluded to above, in some cases there probably were no options, nowhere safe to go. Consider what would (will) happen when Florida's time comes. The highest point in the state is 300 feet. The mean elevation is 100 feet. Even with a great warning system and hours of warning, where are 17 million people going to go? Or substitute Holland, or the Mississippi delta, etc, etc.

South Asia has been the recipient of countless aid programs over the years. Did any of them distribute radio receivers? There is nowhere on the planet that doesn't get at least short wave reception, especially at night. You don't even need batteries. At the low end, they could even be crystal sets, which can be made for pennies. More sophisticated versions could be hand cranked. Radio is an information source. How many lives could have been saved with casual radio use, even if no one took warning directly from the earthquake?

More is sure to follow.


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