Monday, January 03, 2005


Tragedy & Hope:
Responding to -- & learning from – The Boxing Day Tsunami

GEM 045:01:02

On Boxing Day, the world learned of a truly horrific natural disaster, due to a 9.0 Magnitude earthquake off Indonesia; which triggered tsunami [“tidal”] waves that moved across the Indian Ocean at speeds of up to 500 mph, inundating shorelines from Sumatra to Somalia, and leading to a death toll that has now mounted well in excess of 100,000 lives.

In the days since that event, a global response has been initiated, and a massive aid effort is under way. Here in Montserrat, it is currently proposed that an Account be set up at the Royal Bank in Brades, downstairs the Red Cross Building; so that we can join together to give generously to others in their need, even as we have been given to in our need over the past decade. Let us also remember the victims -- especially the traumatized children -- in our prayers.

We must also learn and heed a vital lesson: sadly, here was no warning for those on the shoreline, because no regional warning network was in place in one of the most seismically active regions of the world. Also, even in Thailand (which participates in the Pacific Tsunami network – the only fully functioning large-scale system in the world), there was not a quick response to the warning issued by that Hawaii-based network fifteen minutes after the earthquake (which was then thought to be Mag. 8.0 – i.e. 1/10 its actual scale, and had been evaluated as posing no tsunami threat to the PACIFIC – as opposed to Indian Ocean – basin). If warning had been given, except for Aceh province, where the lead time was very short indeed, millions of people could literally have walked away from the threatened coastal zone.

So, now, there are calls to set up a global tsunami network, now that over 100,000 people have paid with their lives.

Here in the Caribbean, CDERA, the regional disaster response agency, is again urgently calling for extending the existing Puerto-Rico and USVI tsunami warning net across the region; for, we too are living in a very seismically active region, but have not hitherto been able to prioritise and fund such a network. This is a significant concern, for, as much as a decade ago, a research paper was published that explored the scenario of a Krakatoa-scale explosion of Kick ‘em Jenny, the very active undersea volcano off NW Grenada: within five minutes, a 150 ft wall of water could hit northern Grenada. Over the next ninety minutes, the rest of the EC could see waves of up to 50 – 90 ft: two to three times as high as those that have just devastated the Indian Ocean’s coastlines.

Jamaica’s South coast would be perhaps three hours away for such a wave. Nor is its North Coast “safe”: that coast is vulnerable to earthquake-triggered waves from the highly seismically active Cayman Trench; which would also threaten the Cayman Islands, Haiti, Cuba, and Belize and its neighbouring Central American countries. Guyana, too, is vulnerable, with many low-lying, heavily populated coastal areas. Puerto Rico has suffered five significant tsunami events in recorded history and has off its North coast a deposit from a huge undersea landslip. The region is also exposed to the Atlantic Basin threat from a volcano in the Canary Islands that is threatening to collapse and trigger a massive landslide into the sea.

Why, then, has there been so little action to date?

First, because such a warning network would cost many millions of dollars to create (and even more to run from year to year for many decades – most of the time, with no obvious benefits!), and because tsunamis and similar events are relatively rare. So, given human frailties, many other urgent issues take priority and the tectonic hazards faced by the region are often simply forgotten. (Even in the case of hurricanes, which are far more frequent in our region, people rapidly forget the lessons from the last big strike and become careless.) Also, it is only over the past decade or so that the scientists have become confident that they can reliably predict the amplitude of tsunamis: there are notorious reports of official warnings being issued for waves that did in fact arrive when predicted – but they were only six inches or so high.

No wonder it has been so hard to create and sustain the long-term mass support and resulting political will to act -- until now that over 100,000 people have paid with their lives.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too familiar. What are we in Montserrat doing about the long-term trends with our Soufriere Hills Volcano? What about the region’s vulnerability to extreme weather events, as was demonstrated by Hurricane Ivan just a few months ago? Have we really thought about the implications of the successful Uganda ABC model for fighting AIDS: Abstinence first of all; Being Faithful to one’s spouse; only then, Condoms? [What are the implications of the recently reported statistics that 70% of the students in the MSS are sexually active – in a country with well over 80% attachment to the various churches?] Are we investing in the education system, business incubators and transparent government and governance culture that are desperately needed for us to be competitive in the emerging global age? And, more . . .

So, now, we too plainly need to act: let’s talk, let’s pray . . . and let’s give generously. AMEN

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