Wednesday, December 29, 2004
More on the Devastating Tsunami in South Asia
Exquisite piece in today's (Wednesday's) Wall Street Journal Editorial Page (paid online subscription required) written by Costas Synolakis, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California, on the history of tsunamis and the past reaction to their devastation. Some excerpts:
In the aftermath of the horrific Asian tsunamis of Dec. 26, which have killed more than all 20th-century tsunamis combined, many attempts will be made to place blame or quickly "fix" this problem. A little reflection on the history of past reaction to destructive tsunamis may help....
...The images from Sri Lanka, India and Thailand that have filled our screens--and the descriptions from survivors--are sadly all too familiar, at least to those of us who have conducted tsunami field surveys. At times, some of us thought that we were revisiting images from Flores in 1992, or East Java in 1994, Irian Jaya in 1996, Papua New Guinea in 1998 and Vanuatu in 1999--to just mention catastrophes in countries with similar landscape and coastal construction....
...The response of local [Sri Lankan] residents and tourists, however, was unfamiliar, at least to tsunami field scientists for post-1990s tsunamis. In one report, swimmers felt the current associated with the leading depression wave approaching the beach, yet hesitated about getting out of the water because of the "noise" and the fear that there was an earthquake and they would be safer away from buildings. They had to be told by tourists from Japan--a land where an understanding of tsunamis is now almost hard-wired in the genes--to run to high ground. In another report, vacationers spending the day on Phi Phi were taken back to Phuket one hour after the event started. In many cases tsunami waves persist for several hours, and the transport was nothing less than grossly irresponsible.
Contrast these reactions with what happened in Vanuatu, in 1999. On Pentecost Island, a rather pristine enclave with no electricity or running water, the locals watch television once a week, when a pickup truck with a satellite dish, a VCR and a TV stops by each village. When the International Tsunami Survey Team visited days after the tsunami, they heard that the residents had watched a Unesco video prepared the year before, in the aftermath of the 1998 Papua New Guinea tsunami disaster. When they felt the ground shake during the 1999 earthquake, they ran to a hill nearby. The tsunami swept through, razing the village to the ground. Out of 500 people, only three died, and all three had been unable to run like the others. The tsunami had hit at night.
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