It has been said that lack of communication lies at the bottom of most human problems. This is certainly true of what will likely become the largest human tragedy in recorded history, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
The U.S. Geological Survey and its 120 worldwide earthquake stations recognized the quake and its epicenter almost immediately. Indonesia, a very poor country, has 33 earthquake monitoring stations, and they recognized a quake. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, with its stations placed to measure Pacific Ocean quakes, nevertheless recognized a quake as far away as the Indian Ocean.
But word did not reach the Indian Ocean nations quickly enough.
A communications network might not have helped Banda Aceh in Indonesia, the population center closest to the epicenter of the earthquake. But an effective network would have helped every place else.
Soccer teams have telephone trees staffed by the moms; they can communicate a change in plans in a matter of minutes. Why can’t scientists and nations do the same?
The Indian Ocean lacks an official Tsunami Warning Center, but it certainly had enough equipment and scientists on hand to sense what was going on. It had the information, but lacked the soccer moms’ telephone tree.
Many scientists tried to communicate, but on a Sunday they could not find responsible people answering phones. Many countries did not communicate with other countries in this dire situation because, believe it or not, it is against international protocol. As humorist Dave Barry likes to say, I am not making this up.
It will take only days to improve communication in the Indian Ocean for a future tsunami. I predict within a year, or even less, there will be an official Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning Center nearly as sophisticated as the one built in the Pacific 50 years ago. But for the millions suffering the aftermath of this world’s greatest tragedy, it will have been too late.
We do learn from our mistakes. It has been 120 years since the last major Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami generated by the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa. So perhaps we cannot blame anyone for the complacency that was at least partially responsible for the magnitude of this tragedy.
Perhaps society will learn from this a greater lesson about the importance of human communication, at all levels and with respect to all problems and potential problems.
And if we can learn that lesson, we might look back at this event 500 years from now and still consider it the world’s greatest tragedy–never eclipsed in the intervening centuries.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute. Dr. Lehr appeared on the December 29, 2004 ABC special on tsunamis, hosted by Charlie Gibson.