abstract musings

abstract (adj.): Considered apart from concrete existence: an abstract concept.
musings (n.): A product of contemplation; a thought.


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Thursday, December 30, 2004

Preventing Natural Disasters

It can't be done. There is no way to prevent an upheaval of the earth like the one which caused Sunday's earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Some people would like to make the argument that the blame for this tragedy lies with global warming. The case these editorials in the New York Times and the London Telegraph present is that the best we can do is detection and warning to minimize the loss of life and the impact that is felt by nature's destructive forces. The Telegraph editorial even goes so far as to point out other areas in which we could through application of preventative measures mitigate other potential calamities.

The appliance of science has seen a huge surge in the Earth's population, lifespan and in the extent of civilised society. The tsunami has taught us humility, once again underlining how nature, and not mankind, is still the real master. The plates that slide, shift and grind under our feet, the viruses that multiply in our bodies and objects in orbit are indifferent to our plight. The chances of a natural Armageddon might be remote, but the destruction of human life and impact on modern lifestyles would be so extreme that we should use science to defend ourselves better.

None of the potential disasters the Telegraph warns us of would be stopped by an increased focus on global warming.

Costas Synolakis provides a brief history of tsunamis, particularly those which led to the development of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and provides one account that illuminates why education about the danger of tsunamis can alter the potential human loss due to a devastating tsunami.

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 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.

Another OpinionJournal editorial (From Dean's World) shows that those with a political agenda will persist in making their case:

One might think that a disaster of this scale would transcend normal national or political considerations. But in the world of environmental zealotry, even an event such as this is seen as an opportunity to press the agenda. Thus, the source of the South Asian tsunami is being located in global warming.

In an interview with the Independent newspaper in Britain, Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: "No one can ignore the relentless increase in extreme weather events and so-called natural disasters, which in reality are no more natural than a plastic Christmas tree." Speaking to the same newspaper, Friends of the Earth Director Tony Juniper pressed the argument home: "Here again are yet more events in the real world that are consistent with climate change predictions."

But as the same editorial makes clear the argument for prevention is solid:

It is preposterous to blame the inexorable forces of nature on the development of industry and infrastructures of modern society. The more sensible response to natural disasters is to improve forecasting, put in place efficient communications and evacuation procedures and, should the worst arrive, conduct relief efforts and rebuild what nature has destroyed. Those cautionary measures, as is now clear, cost money. The national income necessary to afford them is made possible only by economic growth of the sort too many of environmentalists retard with their policy extremism.

Rich countries suffer fewer fatalities from natural disasters because their prosperity has allowed them to create better protective measures. Consider the 41,000 death toll in last December's earthquake in Iran compared with the 63 who died when a slightly stronger earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989.

The answer doesn't lie in less industry, but in more; so that, developing nations can afford the infrastructure to prevent such horrible loss of life as we have seen this week. And also in creating a robust infrastructure to rebuild and replace what nature destroys.

Peggy Noonan reminds us that 2004's biggest story is full of small stories that encourage us that all is not as bleak as the escalating death toll would indicate.

"Did you hear about the baby they found floating on a mattress?" "Did you hear about the 2-year-old Swedish kid they found wandering down a street?" "Did you hear about the guys who floated on a refrigerator?" Did you hear about the model, the surfer, the snorkelers?

People are fascinated by these stories, and so am I. It's a little like the first days after 9/11 in New York: "Did you hear about the guy in the wheelchair on the 91st floor?" Soon we will be hearing about massive relief efforts and individual acts of heroism and sacrifice, and those stories will be a relief, and maybe even in some cases an inspiration.

Not everyone distinguished himself. What to say of those who've latched on to the tragedy to promote their political agendas, from the U.N. official who raced to call the U.S. "stingy," to the global-warming crowd, to administration critics who jumped at the chance to call the president insensitive because he was vacationing in Texas and didn't voice his sympathy quickly enough? Such people are slyly asserting their own, higher sensitivity and getting credit for it, which is odd because what they're actually doing is using dead people to make cheap points.

It is saddening to hear those critics make such noises at a time like this. Just as anti-war protestors seek to use the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to score quick, cheap political points against a war and a president they despise, so too these pundits and experts seek to promote themselves and their agendas in the midst of such sorrow and grief over this terrible tragedy and the deaths it has wrought. It is despicable; they are people without shame.

Citizen Smash also has a post on his own experiences with nature, past and present, and shares this gem of an observation:

NATURE HAPPENS — She doesn't care whether you are an environmentalist or an industrialist, rich or poor, good or evil, black or white, Right or Left. She is neither vengeful nor forgiving. Elections, wars, and treaties do not constrain her.

I have survived earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, hailstorms, and blizzards. I've lived on an active fault line, and in the shadow of a volcano. I've circled the globe, twice. I have witnessed blinding sandstorms in the Middle East, hurricanes in the Atlantic, and typhoons in the Pacific. I've backpacked across the Sierra Nevada, had my food stolen by a bear, and come face to face with a mountain lion.

The one thing I've learned from these experiences is that Nature is neither benevolent nor malevolent. Nature simply is.

Lastly, I have been reminded of my own experience with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I can recall the sound of the wind, like shrieking cats, as it roared past my parent's home. Or the explosive sound of our roof as it was ripped off by 200+ mile per hour winds. The rattling of the fan in our bathroom as my parents, brother and I huddled in the small room waiting for the dreadful storm to pass. I remember walking around my neighborhood later that day, and becoming lost because nothing was were it belonged. All of the homes in our neighborhood were damaged, ours less so than most. The scene was like something out of a war movie.

That afternoon we packed up our valuables and drove to my grandfather's house a couple of miles away. A trip which the day before had taken minutes, now took almost a hour as we were forced to take detour after detour due to the debris blocking most of the roads. At one point, we drove on the sidewalk next to the road to avoid downed power lines. The next few days were full of daily trips for drinking water, as we queued up waiting upon the generosity of others. It was the simple gifts, things like a propane stove and bottled water which our co-workers and friends, who were more fortunate than we, were kind enough to spare, which got us through those first few terrible days.

Weeks of cold showers and no electricity followed. I remember my first hot shower a week after the hurricane struck. A friend invited my parents and I over for dinner and a shower. It was a much too brief return to normal life. For five weeks our neighborhood was pitch black night after night. In the distance we could see the glow of city lights -- the lucky souls who had electricity -- creeping ever closer, promising someday to come to us.

But, it all seems so small to me now, in retrospect. It was nothing in comparison with the present disaster. I knew my loved ones were safe. My younger brother was serving with the Marine Corps overseas and struggled to contact us. Even as my parents were trying to get word to him that we were alive and well.

But, soon enough life returned to normal. And that will happen with this tragedy, too. Life will go on, the dead will be buried, and buildings will be rebuilt. Once the initial disaster recovery is completed, the focus should be on preventing another tragedy, not placing the blame for this one.