Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Tsunami Warnings

Many have weighed in on the absence of an Indian Ocean Tsunami warning system. Needless to say, such a system (provided it was comprehensive) would have been useful on the 26th of December.

Still, the breathless commentary on this matter is way over the top. Take Pascal Zachary's Sunday column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is Mr. Zachary's take:

Why haven't they already taken the necessary steps? Some Asian countries are too poor perhaps, but what about India? The world's second most populous nation has the money and know-how to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them hundreds of miles. India is also home to an enormous software industry. And yet the nation's hard-hit coast was unprotected even by a relatively inexpensive electronic warning system that could have saved thousands of lives.

Shame on India for failing to realize that its pell-mell rush to the forefront of the world's high-tech industries dangerously exposed it to an old- economy mishap.
Shame on India's government for pushing so hard to advance its nuclear weapons program that it failed to see the wisdom of stringing cheap sensors along its coastline. (Only now, after the disaster, do Indian leaders pledge to install a warning system.)

Bunk, we say. Surely Mr. Zachary is aware that the Atlantic Ocean does not have a Tsunami warning system either. This means that New York, where we are, and Washington D.C are exposed. The same is true for the Caribbean. Should we now cry shame on America for this "failure"?

The reason Atlantic does not have a warning system is the same why Indian Ocean does not. In the words of Conrad Lautenbacher, US undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere, "the chances of a major earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean are small, but they're not zero."

This when, in the past 150 years, the Atlantic has had 30 Tsunamis & the Caribbean about 50. The frequency of Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean is far less.

Our good friend Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute has argued in his Indian Express column that with just basic information (not requiring an elaborate warning system), lives could have been saved on the 26th of December. We are not sure of this.

If Tsunami warnings had been issued on the 26th (say on radio & TV), there would have been a panic and tens of millions of people would have tried to get out of the way. We are no public safety experts, but we know this much: there is no way that this mass of people would have made its way to safety in two hours (the time they had) because the capacity of roadways comes into play. They would have been stuck in traffic jams, and many would then be easy victims of the coming Tsunami. Most were, in fact, better off staying in their homes (especially those who live in sturdy buildings).

If the Tsunami warning system is to work, we need more than simply warnings -- we need detailed plans for evacuation of large numbers of people. This requires a great deal of coordination between various branches civil administration. It also requires that people be made aware of what specifically they are to do in face of warnings -- just warning them without this information is like telling them a meteor is about to crash into the Earth; its not clear what one might do in that circumstance.

As illustration, see the detailed information Oahu (Hawaii's largest island where Honolulu is situated) provides its residents -- this includes maps of shelters, use of public transportation, emergency contact information etc. This is not rocket science, but unless people are prepared like this, in advance, warnings have no meaning.

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