Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Tsunami: What went wrong?

The recent tsunami in the Indian ocean death tolls are 150,000 and still rising. What I have been surprised by is the lack of attention in the media on what went wrong. I heard somewhere that many lives could have been saved if people just walked fifteen minutes inland. The earthquakes in the ocean were registered hours in advance. Australia and California knew it before India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia did. Why? India invests in technology: nuclear weapons and space exploration. But they don't have warning systems for things that can kill hundreds of thousands of people? Or open phone lines to other places with better warning systems? Why couldn't Australia, with its high-tech wave stations, call up someone in India? Why doesn't the media talk about all of this? One of the few things I found was Bjorn Lomborg's article: the thesis of which is that if you are poor, don't worry about rare contingencies since you cant do anything about those anyway, but spend your money on day to day problems. Lomborg is the co-ordinator of Copenhagen Consensus, a group of Nobel laureates talking about global problems, and his views are similar to the consensus'. That is a very valid point. A warning/alarm system is a really expensive investment even for a rich nation. And given that at some level the world wants to help each other out, given the flurry of donations from all over to help with this tsunami. What follows is really simple: it will be more practical and economic for the world to have a shared alarm/warning system, with communication channels being as important as sensors. What we need to figure out is a way to pool together all our investments into avoiding contingency. That is how insurance works. When we all put our little premiums together, we have money to take care of all our expensive medical bills and enough left over to feed the evil insurance guys. Conclusions: 1. Communication channels are more important. 2. A pooling of international warning systems. 3. Some equivalent of a global insurance policy.

This post raises tonnes of naive questions. Send me pointers to anything I should be looking at.


Blogger Skitz said...

I mostly agree with what Lomborg is saying, in that rich countries can afford the luxuries of expensive alert and disaster prevention systems, whereas poor countries have bigger problems to solve. I wonder if we have spent more money on relief for the affected countries then it would have cost to pay for a tsunami warning system?

One thing that I have wondered through all of this is the following: India has a coast guard and a navy, which probably means that they have helicopters and ships near any of their coastal waters. Imagine Australia or US (Cali) calls India's coast guard to alert them that a tsunami might be headed their way. Couldn't a warning be issued from a helicopter or ship travelling down the coast with a loud speaker hours in advance for people to move away from the shores and move towards higher ground? This is slower than a warning system, but might be say 40% as effective. This probably would not have helped Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but might have helped more developed areas, or any country with a coast guard/navy.

So, to figure out what went wrong, we need to trace the chain of events.

1. Which country/organization was first to know of the quake?
2. Who did they contact?
3. Where did the notification stop?
4. Did the countries who were contacted about a potential tsunami (assuming they may have been) have the infrastructure (i.e. coast guard, navy) to do anything about it?

Could using the power of social networks have saved any more people? Imagine this scenario: 1. California detects the quake and knows a tsunami will result from it, 2. does a quick back of the envelope calculation (using P-dawg's work) to quickly determine the areas that might be affected by the disruption, 3. sends an emergency broadcast message to web/radio/cable/satelite/tv about the affected areas urging people to call anyone they might know in the affected areas. Phone calls are made to resorts or any building connected by phone to evacuate, activists go out to some poorer areas to evacuate people, and maybe some people are saved through word of mouth or more primitive means.

I have a hard time believing that a warning system is all that expensive. The sensing equipment might be pricy, but installing loud speakers every mile on a coast line shouldn't be. The loud speakers don't even have to be wired, they can be connected to each other via wireless broadcast relays powered by the sun. Figuring a rough estimate of the cost of the warning system on say India's coastline would make a very good back of the envelope estimation problem, and should be compared against the total relief.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Skitz said...

After I wrote my last comment, I realized with all of the devices and as connected as we all think we are, we still could not warn anyone of the impending tsunami. Next I was thinking that there should be an SMS emergency broadcast system, or similar communication mechanism that could warn a large percentage of the people that a disaster is coming. Looking around (not far actually, as it was linked by Praveen through the tsunami blog) I found this article:


Interesting article that touches on some of the issues I brought up in the last post. It has examples of a phone call saving lives.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Praveen said...

The more you read about it, the more depressing it is to know how easily many people could have been saved. Its one thing for a country to be poor, its another for it to have had no foresight for a possible disaster. The countries affected did not have to have fancy sensors. All technology for saving lives was in place, as the stories that Jason posted above show. Which seems to support that there was some crazy stupidity going on here. If the swedish government could find the telephone numbers of all swedes in Thailand recently and then SMS them warnings, then WHY THE FUCK THEY DIDNT TRY TO CONTACT THE PRIME MINISTER OF THAILAND, AND SAVE SOME THAIS, TOO? I would really like to know what places and people knew about the earthquake and impending tsunami, did things about it, and why couldnt they alert local officials. India is a nuclear power, which means they have to have some channels of communications with top level officials, lest something blows. Or the other possibility is that these countries were so stupid not to act on such notification, or ignored any such attempts to be notified. In light of so many deaths, this makes me angry and sick to imagine this stupidity.

There is also an interesting issue from the point of view of media: they arent talking about the kinds of questions that Jason raises in his first comment above. Is it some kind of etiquette to wait for a while before doing such analysis?

Did you also read about how very few animals died as a consequence of this? I dont totally buy this, but there might be something about the simplicity of the animals cognitive system:


12:43 AM  
Blogger $mike said...

So many points to address...

Let’s see, first accountability: People knew this was happening and balls were dropped in the process of informing the public. We can all agree on that. What I propose, in the interest of pure knowledge, is that all involved are given amnesty from any charges or law suits if they step forward and tell their story of why people weren’t warned.

I want to see seismologists come forth and say they saw the huge quake on their instruments, knew the location was in the sea, figured tsunamis were imminent... and why didn’t they report it to governments and/or media outlets? I want to see government officials step up and tell the world about public warning systems that failed, the lack of dissemination of data from scientists, or simple lethargy if that’s the case. Ditto for those who live on the coast and should know the sea. Why didn’t they recognize that earthquakes equal tsunamis? How can you make your living off the ocean and not be in tune with its signals of the most killer kind? The point of the exercise would be to find the glaring holes in why the public was not warned about the tsunami.

As I see it, the key to preventing this from happening again lies in those three areas: science, communication, and knowledge. All three can be addressed in a simple, cheap, almost government-free manner. The Internet was first conceived of to help scientists share information. So duh, why aren’t seismologists sharing this information with the world at large in a timely manner? With little resources, they could set up a website to act as a repository of seismic activity. Events are posted in real-time, after-effects are hypothesized and analyzed, warnings are made.

Any government, NGO, or simple citizen could monitor the above site. From there, you have to get the word to people living in remote parts of the world. I should think every government has some sort of public attention system. At the very least, they have state-run radio stations that sound the klaxon when something is amiss. Publicly or corporate held stations could monitor the site and report it like traffic or weather (but with a little more urgency perhaps). You wanna add some sort of ham radio, text messaging, and e-mail to this warning system? The open source community would *love* to work on something so... visceral. Will this get everyone out of the way of walls of water? Probably not, but it sure would be a good start. Some people choose to remain out of touch or are too poor to have a means to receive such warnings. But I really don’t want to discuss those aspects here.

Finally, people have to get this notion that they are separate from the world out of their collective heads. They have to learn to be more in touch with their surroundings. Those sea gypsies in Thailand knew what was up. This kind of lore has to be seen in a more positive light (e.g. think about all the herbal remedies that really work that have been lost to ~science~).

[Aside, I submit that the tilde (~) be used for sarcasm instead of the quote (“). I detest the use of quotes for sarcasm. Quotes are for quotations. And why is it just now that society needs a punctuation mark for sarcasm? What would Shakespeare look like with tildes everywhere?]

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Shouldas, oughtas, and gosh darns are all for naught with 150,000 souls newly freed from their earthly bonds. I guess what I’d really like to see is some tangible good to come out of this. In forty years, while sitting in a rocking chair on my porch, I want to explain to my grandchildren that the reason very few people were killed in the most recent quake and tsunami in bumble-fuck-wherever, was because my generation used a past disaster as reason to change the world for the better.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Skitz said...

How about this?


It may not be a phenomenon of the simplicity of the cognitive system, but rather how in tune your cognitive system is with nature. It seems no animals died on the Andaman and Nicabar Islands, and the more primitive the tribe was, the less devastatation. The primitive people and the animals moved to higher ground...the high techies with good instrumentation and/or people with a modern lifestyle didn't heed any natural warnings.

9:54 AM  
Blogger $mike said...

Oh man, that was a terrible article... The English was sloppy and the facts were confusing. OK, but the premise was at least interesting. If the facts were straight, it would be interesting to find out how they knew the waves were coming. Maybe a global network of "in tune" tribe people can be set up... Of course, I'd want that job. It could be decades before they found out I was a fraud...

8:41 AM  

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