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Survivors' Guilt
Fred Schwab

When my daughter was a teenager, I couldn't get her to consistently date sensibly. Many parents engage is this classic struggle to do what's best for their children, while the kids struggle to find their independence. A similar story has developed after the Dec. 26 tsunami: Many nations are encouraging the Indian Ocean states to take measures to prevent another tsunami disaster. But, like me trying to convince my daughter, I doubt that we can persuade sovereign nations bordering the Indian Ocean to adopt dramatically more sensible land-use policies, particularly along coasts where tourism is the major source of employment and foreign currency. I'm also skeptical that we can convince foreign governments to develop and impose stronger building codes.

Much of the devastation from the December earthquake was due to the high speed at which seawater (each cubic meter weighs almost a ton) can move. As a 1,300-kilometer by 100-kilometer sliver of the Indian plate slipped roughly 25 meters beneath the Burma microplate off Sumatra, Indonesia, the magnitude-9.3 earthquake generated a tsunami. Waves raced across the open ocean at speeds nearly matching that of a cruising 737 airplane and roared ashore at roughly 50 kilometers an hour. It was as if tens of thousands of fast-moving tractor-trailer trucks loaded to the hilt suddenly rammed into the vulnerable villages and beach resorts lining the coasts of India, Sri Lanka and Sumatra.

Within hours, the tsunami wiped out three to four times as many people as the number of American military killed during the Vietnam War. The destruction was widespread because of the enormous amount of energy. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs yielded explosive energy equal to more than 30,000 tons of TNT. The U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program initially suggested that the Indonesian quake released 23,000 times more energy than those nuclear events, while a table compiled by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology indicates that magnitude-9.0 earthquakes release about 100,000 times more energy than Hiroshima-level bombs (and those estimates will now change again with the earthquake’s upgrade in magnitude to 9.3).

To move forward often requires a look back. With hindsight as our guide, we can now ask, "what do we do now?" Media coverage has been replete with experts and laypeople blaming the destruction on the lack of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. The consensus is that such a system would have saved lives and will prevent future tragedies. This is an important first step, and U.S. scientists and technicians should lead this effort.

Already, Koichiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, announced that an Indian Ocean system would be in place by June 2006, with a global network by 2007. And John Marburger, President Bush's top science advisor, announced that the administration will spend $37.5 million over the next three years installing 32 new deep-sea buoys in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. A worldwide tsunami detection system requires positioning 50 to 60 sophisticated tsunami buoys similar to the six sensors placed by the United States in the North Pacific. The total cost would be a fraction of the cost of recovery from the 2004 tsunami. But such a system would only moderate the problem, not eliminate it.

The waves that devastated the province of Aceh, Sumatra, killing more than 100,000 people, struck 15 minutes after the quake. This speed underscores how a network would have to be linked to a straightforward warning system that communicates directly with the public, not government agencies or bureaucrats. People in areas susceptible to disaster also need clear, simple guidance on how to react quickly and intelligently. Some of us, recalling our high school A-bomb drills, hope for something better.

Some commentators have gone further than recommending a warning system, however. In the Jan. 5 Washington Post, William H. Hooke, director of the American Meteorological Society's policy program and chair of the Disaster Roundtable of the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, not only suggested creation of an effective warning system, but also argued that society "adopt less risky behavior."

This notion seems to me to be both impractical and unrealistic; I do not believe we can dictate our ideas of sensible living to independent nations, especially when their way of life and economies differ so much from our own. For example, few if any insurance companies will absorb significant losses from the Indian Ocean tsunami, because most people living there possess little property of significant value or the means to pay for insuring it. (Preliminary forecasts suggest that long-term economic consequences will be minimal because the level of industrialization was low.)

Additionally, as global efforts continue to help the affected countries in the Indian Ocean region survive this tragedy and minimize similar disasters in the future, it is important to recognize that quieter, deadlier, more easily remedied threats occur daily that do not make the headlines that tsunamis do. In the Jan. 5 New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof pointed out that malaria kills roughly 165,000 people monthly. This means that malaria kills in a year nearly 2 million people — what it took earthquakes the entire 20th century to do. Mosquito netting ($5 a person) and effective medication ($1 a dose daily) are proven, effective remedies that are more practical than seawalls and mass resettlement. Certainly we can better lead the global battle against solvable problems like this. At the same time, we must have similarly simple, yet intelligent, strategies in place for mitigating the effects of natural disasters, like tsunamis, that cannot be prevented.

Humankind continues to wrestle with difficult choices, but I am confident we will reach a solution together.


Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a corresponding editor for Geotimes. E-mail: schwabf@wlu.edu.

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