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Early Morning, Early Warning

By Dilip D'Souza
December 28, 2004 17:20 IST
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Are early warnings possible? I have no idea, but chew on this: the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Los Angeles detected the quake that caused these killer waves, at least an hour before they hit Thailand and Malaysia. They issued an alert for the Pacific countries, their mandated area of concern.

It's not as if they then sat back and twiddled their thumbs. But here's what Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu, had to say about this one hour, about the possibility of warning the other countries in the region. "We tried to do what we could," he began, but "we don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."

Is the world that disconnected?

Directory inquiry, or a Google search, would have unearthed the numbers of consulates, embassies, offices, agencies; besides, in this webbed and celled age, it is impossible to believe that nobody at the NOAA and/or the PTWC knew anybody in "that part of the world."

Death in a churchyard

At Marina, sea is calm as if nothing happened

One hour, or even a few, is not a whole lot of time. But yes, in these webbed and celled times, it seems like enough to: find some numbers, make some calls, get the word down to those coastal areas, get one word -- "Run!" -- into at least a few people's heads, who would then alert others as they ran. Sure, perhaps panic would set in, but if that panic drove people out of their homes to save ground... I'm all for panic instead of deaths.

Yes, it's hard to believe that all the deaths could have been averted. But it's not hard to believe that some might have been. After all, one life saved would have been worth the effort to get over the obstacle of a blank address book.

Why did McCreery, his NOAA and other agencies not make that effort? I have no idea.

But having wondered that, you also realise: even if they had done so, one hour, or a few, would have been the extent of the early warning. In that time, you've got to get the word out, persuade people it is a credible warning, and hope they are left with enough time to run to safety. Even with systems in place, even with panic, is it enough?

So is the answer that we must simply be fatalistic about these disasters, accept that they will happen and kill some of us, and there's little to be done except offer relief afterwards? Surely not. Because after all, one life saved would have been worth the effort to make good use of that one hour. Worth the effort to install and maintain warning systems and shelters up and down those coasts. Surely.

And yet the real early warning lies in some larger measures. It's in being prepared for such calamities to begin with. Install systems, maintain them, yes. Move from there to ensuring that nobody lives in exposed coastal areas unless they are in homes that can withstand disaster, or at least offer a measure of protection. Move from there to policies that address our most vulnerable people -- the poor who must live like this -- first. A country without the wide gap between rich and poor that India has, it seems to me, would not have had so many die. A country that forces its poor to scrabble to live on exposed shores, on the edge of filthy drains, at the outer fringes of our consciousness, is a country that will see thousands dead in future catastrophes like this.

'I have never seen anything like this'

After all, powerful cyclones often hit the US coast, there have been killer quakes there. Deaths happen in these disasters, but at worst, they number in the dozens. (The 1989 California quake, a great calamity that still causes shudders in that state, killed 63). Never in the thousands, as in India. Why the difference?

The Tsunami Tragedy: Complete Coverage

It's a question that, especially after spending time in Orissa after the 1999 cyclone and Kutch after the 2001 quake, I often agonise over. I had an answer then, as I think I have now. And it leaves me with the sinking feeling that the next disaster here, and the ones after that, will indeed kill by the thousand as well, and not only because early warning systems are not in place.

They will kill like that because we have so many poor people who live vulnerable lives in vulnerable homes that are in vulnerable places. They will kill because, in a very real sense, that fact about our poor doesn't really matter to us at all. They themselves don't really matter.

And thus the real early warning system, the truly effective long-term one, lies in turning that attitude around. In setting national priorities, our country's policies, to address first and always the most vulnerable among us. To ensure that they live in greater security. Assure our citizens that much, and you can be sure that that alone will make the next calamity less deadly.

But, of course, that's for the future. For now, it's time to tackle this tragedy. A useful place to find out what's happening and how you can help is here.

Death Ends Fun:

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Dilip D'Souza