Sunday, January 02, 2005

Typical Media Report on Lack of Warning

National Public Radio correspondent Christopher Joyce's report for "Morning Edition" on December 28 is typical of the reporting in the days immediately after the tsunami regarding the professed inability of scientists to issue a warning to the Indian Ocean nations. At one point in his report Joyce said:

"Other U.S. scientists who monitor earthquakes say when they realized how big the quake really was there was no clear way to get the information to authorities who might have been able to warn people in time."

One of his scientific sources said on tape:

"There was knowledge that a tsunami was being generated and that information was available, but the problem we ran into was that there were not appropriate agencies in places like India and in Somalia on the East and the Horn of Africa region. There was no system set up by which we could take that information and translate it into actions that the public could react to."

This latter statement in particular leads to questions about the preparation of scientists to rapidly handle the dissemination of tsunami alerts to populations in peril. The Associated Press, CNN, News World International, Reuters and the BBC are some of the news agencies with world-wide networks. They might have been the scientists' link to the mass populations they worried about around the Indian Ocean. One has to assume that the AP, once convinced of the bona fides of a caller from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center or the U.S. Geological Survey, would have issued a "flash" bulletin to its clients that would have been broadcast on TV and radio -- perhaps in time to save tens of thousands of lives. Yet missing from all news reports found to date is any indication that U.S. scientists made an aggressive move to call the media and tell them what they knew at the moment they became alarmed that a tsunami had been generated. As noted in the NOAA timeline, U.S. agencies had knowledge of the possibility of a tsunami before the waves struck Sri Lanka and India.

(Another report by NPR's Joyce, broadcast in the December 30 edition of "All Things Considered", also reveals the tendency of U.S. scientists to focus on high-tech warning systems and apparently not think at all about using relatively low-tech media: "There is a severe frustration on our part," says one official. "We did everything we could. You just have to realize that, you know, these other links are absolutely just as critical, and we have them in the U.S. You know, they don't exist elsewhere."

This subject needs investigation -- not to lay blame but to ensure that U.S. agencies are suitably prepared with both the mindset and the means to alleviate tragedies around the world when they have the ability to do so.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI
January 2, 2005

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