Like the waves we've seen on the news crashing on to Asian beaches, the power of moving water and the reality of how fast it can strike has been dramatically reaffirmed throughout the world.
We feel for the victims, their families and all those involved in the massive recovery work. The scope of this tragedy insures great media attention which will also bring about political pressures (both good and bad). But as the chaos subsides and life churns on, the most important question remains:
How can we learn from this event?
Certainly, it is easy to second guess many aspects of any given tragedy but there are a few rather important facts from this latest disaster that we find repeated where floodwaters challenge mankind's "design" on the land.
#1. Prior Warnings Had Been Criticized And Ignored:
In 1998, Samith Dharmasaroja, who had served as Thailand's chief meteorologist publically stated: "I reaffirm that a tsunami is going to occur for sure." Mr. Smith had even focused his attention on the hard-hit resort area of Phuket. Public outcry from the Phuket tourism business was so extreme that the Thai government sidelined Samith, labeling him as crazy. (Mr. Samith has now been asked to come out of retirement to run Thailand's new tsunami warning efforts.)
#2. Risk Communication Was Subjugated To Business Interests:
Several agencies failed to issue warnings for fear of false alarm and/or fallout from the business community. Some countries had as much as an hour warning that there might be a tidal wave but failed to relay the information to their coastal communities.
The highest function of an agency meteorologist is to be part of a system that might save lives from impended danger. Taking the risk of a false warning should go with the territory but there are always other forces at work...such as a recent record of complaints from the government backed Asian tourism industry after warnings for tidal waves have been issued.
#3 Lack of Agency Information Follow-Through:
Many scientists around the globe knew about the earthquake and the possibility of a destructive tidal wave. Some efforts were made to by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii to alert U.S. officials and eventually, as the quake was known to be worse than previously thought, to warn Asian governments. But there had not been a systematic procedure in place to communicate the information down to where it mattered...specific highly populated and highly-trafficed areas of coastline communities. One quote repeated over and over again in media interviews was "We didn't call anyone because we didn't know who to call."
#4 Known High-risk Areas Were Not Given Special Attention:
The word: Tsu - Nami literally means harbor wave. Harbors are both desirable areas for tourism development and at special risk from Tsunamis since the narrowing of a bay concentrates waves. While one can make the case that much of Asia is too poor to afford a warning system, harbor towns were given no special consideration.
#5 A Systemic Problem
All the aforementioned issues define a systemic problem that is pervasive when floodwaters challenge mankind's "design" on the land. These same problems can be found in both historic and contemporary reviews of flood events and will continue (perhaps even worsen) as more people build and live in harm's way.
Suggested Research and Reading:
Isaac's Storm This narrative nonfiction story details the 1900 hurricane that destroyed the town of Galveston, Texas and killed over 6,000 people, the greatest natural disaster in American history. The fledgling U.S. Weather Bureau ignored warnings of the impending storm system from Cuba weather authorities seen as amateurs. From the official description: "Thrilling, powerful, and unrelentingly suspenseful, Isaac's Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable forces of nature."
Krakatau, 1883 The 1883 Krakatau Volcano eruption (and massive land collapse) in Indonesia generated catastrophic tsunami waves as high as 120 ft. (killing an estimated 36,000 people and destroyed of hundreds of coastal villages and towns).