Blogs > Cliopatria > Disasters and Technology

Dec 28, 2004 2:25 am

Disasters and Technology

I am a little angry, so consider the following a rant. Here is the reason for my anger:
Within 15 minutes of Sunday's earthquake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii had sent an alert to 26 countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, but struggled to reach the right people. Television and radio alerts were not issued in Thailand until 9am - nearly an hour after the waves hit.

"We tried to do what we could. We don't have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world," said Charles McCreery, director of the centre.

and further down in the same piece:
Tad Murty, a tsunami specialist affiliated to the University of Winnipeg in Canada, said that officials in India, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries perceived tsunamis as"a Pacific problem" and had"never shown the initiative to do anything".

The head of India's National Institute of Oceanography said the likelihood of a tsunami hitting Madras had seemed as unlikely as New York's Fifth Avenue being inundated in the film The Day After Tomorrow.

"There's no reason for a single individual to get killed in a tsunami," Mr Murty said."The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts for the whole of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That's enough time for a warning."

So, on the one hand, we have people who have never heard of embassies, consulates, disaster relief agencies, the UN, and a friend from the last oceonagraphy conference in the area. Charles McCreery does not know anyone in"that part of the world". And couldn't be bothered to send an email to the Indian, Srilankan or Thai embassy in D.C. Emails that are easily available to any lay person. On the other hand are people who couldn't be bothered to prepare for such an emergency because such things only happen in bad hollywood movies.

Because there was an alert system.This french blogger received an alert about the earthquake three hours before the tidal waves started hitting the land [english]. Presumably, such an alert could have been given to those in charge in India, Srilanka or Thailand? But they never signed up - at least, not in India. Now, the governments are rethinking their strategies and hope to have an early warning system. But here is the gem, again:
`The difficult part here would be coordination between emergency response agencies in the region.

Let me get this straight. In this day and age, when I can get the NYSE ticker on my toilet roll, they cannot figure out how to get disaster information out!? I want to scream from looking at the pictures of drowned babies on NYT and Those lives could have been saved if someone had a Blackberry subscription?

Like I said, I am angry.

Well, if technology could not save people from disaster, it is proving a great way to mobilize information for survivors and helpers. Wikipedia's page on the disaster is an amazing resource. As well as the many, many bloggers doing live posts. BoingBoing has a growing list.
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More Comments:

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/30/2004

There was an interesting piece yesterday in the Wall Street Journal's opinon section. It said there is no fee for joining the Tsunami Warning System (which warned its 26 members). All that is required is that the states petition the System for membership, and fulfill the requirment of designating local emergency management officials to interpret and act on the warnings. The whole thing is run by the UN, where each nation has representation. Maybe if they spent a little more time on such issues, and less on the political shenanigans necessary to get Sudan on the Human Rights Commission, then these things wouldn't happen.

The article has an interesting bit on the Vanuatu tsunami of 1999. The previous year, the inhabitants (who have no electricity or running water or regular TV) watched a UNESCO video on tsunamis presented by a roving truck with a satellite dish that provides an hour a day of TV to the area. When, a year later, an earthquake hit in the middle of the night, people ran to high ground, and of 500 people only 3 died (nonambulatory).

Jeff Vanke - 12/30/2004

I don't think we disagree about what could help. The Pacific alert system is tested locally monthly in Hawaii, and I don't think it's going to be neglected any time soon.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/30/2004

But, Jeff, it is the Pacific Alert System that Glenn Reynolds and Wretchard have said is the sort of unlikely-to-be-used-billion-dollar-system that would be junked years down the pike because no one any longer knew what it was supposed to do. The analogy they had in mind, I thought, was to bomb shelters. Ineffective, big ticket solutions that probably wouldn't be used and, if used, probably wouldn't help very much. What Manan and Oscar have looked to is some less massive, more voluntary system of alerts which manages nonetheless to deliver meaningful warnings to masses of people. It's one thing to hide in basements and under desks from H-bombs; it's another thing to run to high ground from a tsunamis. One of the really interesting findings on some of the islands in the Indian Ocean is that there are, apparently, no dead bodies of wild animals. They, apparently, had some sense of danger and sought high ground.

Jeff Vanke - 12/30/2004

Anti-terrorism networks presumably don't have the geologists at the top of their contact lists. Our geologists did, they claim, send warnings to many of the countries concerned. It turns out some governments in Asia are conceding that they should have done more to warn coastal dwellers, which implies that they had some data in advance.

The dirty-bomb analogy is flawed because it involves different actors on our side (better placed for top-priority security communications), and different substance for the receiving side to receive and comprehend.

If you have no truck with bureaucratic explanations, then I don't know how I'd recommend to you and others some bureaucratic solutions, which are exactly what are required (a la the Pacific alert system).

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/29/2004

I enjoyed the piece linked to from The Independent. It said the East Coast of the US has a warning system. That, however, does not necessarily entail success. Bridges to the mainlaind from the East Coast barrier islands are so few and far between, and designed to handle day-to-day traffic, and the barrier islands so intensively developed, that I suspect fewer than a third of their residents will have been evacuated to the mainlaind by the time a tsunami from the collapse of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in La Palma hits the US.

Manan Ahmed - 12/29/2004

But yeah, I am just raging against the skies. The futility of human agency, in the face of nature, remains.

Manan Ahmed - 12/29/2004

As I noted above in a comment:

Imagine if you will a small explosion happens in Riyadh or Tel Aviv or Cairo or Beijing. Something, sadly, not a rare occurance. Now imagine if only the US knew that this was a dirty bomb that is releasing toxic gas into the air - capable of killing hundreds of thousands if an immediate evacuation is not ordered. Wouldn't that information need to be delivered IMMEDIATELY to the respective elected or despotic government? And wouldn't that information need to be dynamically processed?

The question is whether during this global war on terror, such a system already exists or not. My hope is that it does. And if it does, it needs to be broadened to incorporate natural disasters. If it does not exist, than we really need to ask why not?

There is no reason to play up bureaucratic opaqueness and near-sightedness. They are a truism of our existence. Just as they exist, there must exist channels that transcend them. That is the reality we live in, both politically and technologically. Forget a Hot Line...what about sending an SMS? an email?

Jeff Vanke - 12/29/2004

I'll be more specific on two points. First, I'm talking about American officials. Second, more an elaboration than specification, with the exception of Indonesia (a Pacific country), the communications bottlenecks in Asia and Africa were probably filled with a lack of imagination of what the tsunami predications meant or how probable they were.

Jeff Vanke - 12/29/2004

I have hesitated to post this, but I will. The kind of international, multi-level, bureaucratic door-crashing that you envision, on a Saturday night in the U.S., Christmas night, and Sunday morning in the areas affected, this is the vision of a heroic endeavor and success of epic proportions. Even Dan Brown's characters in The Da Vinci Code took 24 hours (not just 2-3) for a much more focused task. I frankly cannot imagine any successful warning effort during those particular few hours, all lack of preparation being equal.

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