Needless Tsunami Deaths Expose Worldwide Vulnerability and Lack of US Intervention

By Christine Smith

"What happened in the Indian Ocean was totally preventable," says Dr. Walter Dudley, Professor of Oceanography, and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Council for the Pacific Tsunami Museum. Prevention would have come at a cost of "probably what we spend on this war (Iraq) in 8 hours."

"There has been no major international effort, and I think that is really scandalous.We're always talking about how inefficient the UN is, so if we really believe the UN is not the best place for this (and I'm not saying I take that position), but if that's what we believe, then we have to step up to the plate.If we see ourselves as the world leader to provide freedom, well, these people have lost not only their freedom but their lives."

I believe the US could have prevented much human misery by providing adequate tsunami warning systems, preparedness and education--that would truly have been humanitarian work. A worldwide tsunami warning system has been discussed for decades, with the need for a tsunami warning system beyond the Pacific region noted since 1985. The cost would have apparently been a pittance in comparison to the disaster relief the US is now giving in aid, and more importantly, had such a system existed, thousands may have been saved.

"I can put little blame on governments who have trouble feeding their people for not investing money in this, when there are rich countries all over the world who could. So, that's where I put the blame."

Sea floor gauges (like the 6 we have from the Aleutians down to Central America, and gauges off of Chile and Japan) cost about a million dollars each, and must be combined with a communication and education program, "We know how to bring that type of program elsewhere.there really needs to be some support behind it."

"Right now, we're talking about how much money we're giving, but if you look at a per capita basis, or even more importantly on a gross national product, then we're the last in the world. We're the stingiest. It's quite different when a rich man gives $5 versus a poor man. So, I think that's scandalous," Dudley said. (Current US tsunami aid of $350 million is approx. equivalent to the expense of two days of the Iraq War.)

Barring a preventative scientific detection system, what could have been done to reduce loss of life?

Paul Earle, Research Geophysicist at the USGS explained that the "call down list" was notified, "In about an hour 15 minutes (from origin time of earthquake) we knew we had a preliminary magnitude of 8.5...and the State Department, White House, and relief organizations were notified," as well as 25,000 individuals worldwide on an email list. Earle explained that the responsibility of the NEIC "is to detect and report earthquakes worldwide, not to report the potential for a tsunami."

An undersea earthquake of such great magnitude can trigger a tsunami (undersea earthquakes or landslides cause most tsunamis), though without gauges it cannot be determined if a tsunami has formed. The earthquake, one of the strongest in 40 years, posed no tsunami threat to Hawaii, the West Coast of North America or to other Pacific Basin coasts. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) reportedly issued a bulletin identifying the possibility of a tsunami near the epicenter. Thus, the American government was notified of the massive earthquake, and the potential for formation of a devastating tsunami was known.

Based on that, the American government saw prudent to notify the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia (location of a US Navy Base used for bombing raids on Afghanistan and Iraq). But did our government adequately attempt to notify other nations who were not a part of the Pacific Warning system?

The US State Department "declined" to answer my simple question as to whether they notified or attempted to notify anyone in the affected nations that a massive oceanic earthquake had occurred. Rather than receiving an interview (after supplying the State Dept. with my question(s) at the request of their Media Outreach Department) I was instead told the South Asian Bureau had said ".no one was available," and that the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Office had said , "We don't have anyone here for (her) to talk to," and that "We don't have the answers to these questions."

I was told the State Department would be glad to talk to me about their tsunami disaster relief efforts and how they were helping Americans to try and find their relatives, but "no one was available" from the State Dept. to answer my question as to whether anyone in the State Dept. had attempted to notify the affected countries of the threat, and if so, to whom and when?

Anyone can within minutes access numerous telephone, fax, and email contacts online from the affected nations; I am confident the US State Dept, CIA, Navy, and other governmental agencies have access to far better contacts than what can be found online. Yet an individual, using the Internet, finds contacts for numerous government officials, hotels, resorts, and other official and private sector entities in the tsunami path.

But, as Dr. Dudley emphasizes, "You need an emergency protocol," since just picking up the phone doesn't necessarily result in reaching the right people or those who will heed the warning or know what to do unless they've been educated in advance."

But still the question begs, did the US government attempt to notify all the affected countries? It would then, of course, have then been up to those countries to warn their people or not--but at least we would have done, given the circumstances, something to try and prevent loss of life. Published reports indicate evacuation for many would simply have meant walking inland.

Dr. Dudley: "The effort should go now to set up a global system. We get floods in most states every single year and they kill 2 or 3 people. You get tornadoes.and they kill a dozen people, a hundred people, and it's a tragedy. But it's a natural phenomenon we know is going to happen and we have systems. Tsunamis are the same way.they've happened throughout history, they will continue to happen. People think they're not important because they are so rare. But the cost is so great when one does occur."

Is America adequately protected? Though the West Coast has the sea gauges and some education programs, a tsunami could occur in the Atlantic as well. I believe possibility, not probability, should be the measure as to where technological and educational measures should be implemented (as the Indian Ocean tragedy proves).

According to NOAA, The NOAA National Weather Service began the voluntary TsuanamiReady Community Program "to help areas prepare for such events. To date, there are 10 communities in Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California that have met the TsunamiReady criteria." Where does that leave the preparedness of the rest of America's West coast, much less the East coast?

For example: A worst-case scenario by scientists Steven N. Ward (Inst. of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Univ. of CA, Santa Cruz) and Simon Day (Benfield Greig Hazard Research Center-Dept. of Geological Sciences, University College-London) reported in a 2001 paper in Geophysical Research Letters, regards the potential of a huge tsunami hitting America's East coast should the unstable Cumbre Vieja volcano on a Canary Island erupt causing its western flank to slide into the ocean. Though a sudden massive landslide and subsequent massive tsunami might not occur (and rather small chunks of land may slide into the sea) the possibility exists.

Dudley commends the people and work of the PTWC and the West Coast Alaska Regional Tsunami Warning Center but says "Operationally, they could certainly use more funding." and that "tsunami education has been done very, very piece-meal, very poorly and appreciation of the danger is critical to even make the technology end work."

In 1895, Joseph Malins penned a poem 'The Ambulance Down In The Valley,' regarding a community that kept an ambulance at the bottom of a dangerous cliff to retrieve bodies rather than building a fence to keep people from falling, an excerpt: "It's a marvel to me that people give far more attention to repairing results than to stopping the cause, When they'd much better aim at prevention. Let us stop at its source all this mischief," cried he. "Oh he's a fanatic," the others rejoined, "Dispense with the ambulance? Never! He'd dispense with all charities, too, if he could; No! No! We'll support them forever. Aren't we picking up folks just as fast as they fall? .But the sensible few, who are practical too, Will not bear with such nonsense much longer; They believe that prevention is better than cure. For the voice of true wisdom is calling.To rescue the fallen is good, but 'tis best to prevent other people from falling."

Let's hope America chooses the "fence" of decreasing our vulnerability, and not an ambulance down in the valley" as for the Indian Ocean tsunami victims.

Christine Smith is a writer and social justice activist. Email: