Saturday, December 23, 2006

Two Years after Quake, Rationalization Still Primary Way to Deal with the Terrible Truth: Nothing Scientists Did that Day Saved Lives

The great Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated villages, cities and whole populations the day after Christmas two years ago. As with most calamities in which the number of deaths was high, the world pauses to remember, as does today’s Tsunami Lessons post.

The Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA show on December 19th was devoted to the documentary “Wave that Shook the World”, and like most documentaries, this one relies on interviews with scientists, seismologists, geologists and others who recalled the events of that day.

Reading the transcript of the show is disappointing for those of us who believe tens of thousands of lives were needlessly lost due to lack of forethought by tsunami warning planners about how they would issue a warning to populations in peril if a massive earthquake were to generate a tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The Tsunami Was Not a Surprise

There’s no question the threat was well known. In the NOVA documentary, Australian seismologist Phil Cummins says: “In retrospect, the scientific community should have been aware that these massive earthquakes do occur off Sumatra, and probably a little more emphasis should have been focused on the Indian Ocean, where it's documented that massive earthquakes occur.”

On January 8, 2005, this blog documented that knowledge by calling attention to the report of The International Coordinating Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific’s October 2003 convention in Wellington, New Zealand. Page 30 of the convention’s report has the following about the potential for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean:

“Due to its tectonic setting which is located at the junction of three major plates of the Pacific, Eurasian and Indo-Australian, and one minor plate of the Philippines, Indonesia has a high activity in earthquakes and tsunamis. Historical data show that many tsunamis in Indonesia are destructives (sic) and have affected neighboring countries such as Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, etc.”

Page 48 of the document says: "...the Southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis...."

These references establish what science knew about the tsunami potential in the region. Let’s turn now to what scientists and warning planners did with that knowledge. The available evidence suggests they did little or nothing to prepare for the day when millions of people would require a warning to save their lives.

International Media – A Warning Solution

We continue to draw attention to this issue, not to “blame” those who did not implement a warning to cover the Indian Ocean nations, but because tsunami warning planners and seismologists continue to avoid serious discussions about using the international news media to issue tsunami warnings in extraordinarily urgent situations.

Beginning with our first post on January 2, 2005, the Tsunami Lessons blog has advocated what to us is an obvious solution to the problem of sending messages to distant and isolated populations.

The Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, CNN and other worldwide news networks do this routinely – day in and day out without interruption. They operate efficiently and professionally. Some of these networks have existed, not just for scores of years, but for generations.

Why Are the Media Ignored?

The international news networks were not a component of the tsunami warning plan on Christmas 2004, and they’re not in the plan today. It’s noteworthy that not once in the past two years has anyone refuted our premise that existing worldwide news networks could have been effectively used -- and could be used in the future -- in extraordinary circumstances.

We would have been happy to debate the point if an authoritative source within the tsunami warning community had come forward at any time during the past two years, but they haven’t. It’s as if the straightforward, workable and relatively simple method of cooperating with the media to issue tsunami warnings in extraordinary circumstances doesn’t merit their attention.

The reason why scientists have avoided this discussion may be their high-tech orientation; people whose lives revolve around scientific solutions may be unable to even conceive of a low-tech solution to the challenge of sending tsunami warnings quickly to far-away locations.

It’s a Policy Matter

The current crop of tsunami experts, seismologists and agency administrators may be so wedded to their high-cost exotic warning systems that they ignore the electromagnetic spectrum that bombards them with low-tech radio and television signals non-stop around the clock.

Incredible as it may seem, the news networks are ignored even after the 2004 tsunami tragedy because of a U.S. policy that prohibits scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) from contacting the media directly by telephone. Dr. Charles McCreery made this astounding statement during our visit to the PTWC on March 25, 2005; our post on that visit was the first to report this prohibition.

Sound Bites Reveal a Pattern

As you read the documentary’s transcript, keep this blog’s pro-media arguments in mind; remember also that scientists knew of the tsunami threat that major earthquakes pose for the Indian Ocean region. Read their quotes for any indication they used that knowledge on Christmas Day 2004; assess from their own words what they were capable of doing to respond quickly with life-saving warnings to the region through tested networks.

From the “Wave that Shook the World” transcript:

BARRY HIRSHORN (PTWC seismologist): “No contact points, no organization, no warning systems that I know of, in the area. Picking up the phone and thumbing through the phone book or thumbing through the Web is useless. In fact, it can be dangerous because you're not concentrating on warning someone who can actually do something for the people. So we're brainstorming basically, ‘Who can we call?’”

STUART WEINSTEIN (geophysicist, PTWC): “We then created a tsunami travel time map for the Indian Ocean basin. This gave us an idea of how much time we had in order to warn people. It told us where the wave was presently. And then, immediately, we started to try to contact nations that were ahead of the wave.”

NARRATOR: “Less than four hours since the earthquake: the Maldives are next in the tsunami's path of destruction. With the wave charging across the ocean at the speed of a passenger jet, it seems like a losing battle, but using their travel time map, scientists at the Warning Center realize there's still time to alert Africa.”

CHARLES MCCREERY (director, PTWC): “We contacted our State Department, and we advised them that this was a very large earthquake and there was the possibility of tsunami waves striking the east coast of Africa.”

BARRY HIRSHORN: “The State Department operations immediately patched us through to the embassies of Madagascar and Mauritius and we gave them a warning.”

STUART WEINSTEIN: “...their embassies in East Africa. We also contacted people in positions of authority to try to get some sort of warning to the east Africa coast.”

These quotes describe the frenetic and fruitless efforts of these scientists to issue a life-saving warning, as described by a reporter for the Chicago Tribune two weeks after the quake:

"Chicago -- With a killer tsunami bearing down on Sri Lanka and India at airliner speeds, an effort to save thousands of lives came down to a handful of overworked employees in Hawaii trying to telephone government officials they did not know and did not know how to reach."

Coping Becomes Rationalization

Despite their best intentions, PTWC scientists live today with the knowledge that nothing they did that day saved more than perhaps a handful of lives on the east coast of Africa -- and certainly none in Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. Living with this knowledge must be difficult for those who interpreted the data as it arrived at the warning center; they suspected the tsunami could be a killer but did not possess the tools or contacts to send a warning.

We are sympathetic to their plight. This blog is not written by a psychologist, but even an amateur observer can conclude that the stress felt by these scientists has been traumatic and that one way for them to cope with their inability to help anyone that day would be to conclude that “nothing could have been done” to save those people.

We heard that in the days immediately following the quake, and we continue to hear it today.

Indeed, it appears that they did everything they could do with the tools they had in 2004. Two years ago, there were no protocols in place to distribute a warning directly to mass audiences. No discussions had been held with high-level news executives to establish the relationships and bona fides necessary to trigger an alert that could save thousands of lives.

But what about now? Why aren’t officials of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration talking with international news organizations to explore how their networks could be used in extraordinary circumstances, such as the Indian Ocean mega-earthquake? Why does every new initiative to improve the warning capability involve years of planning and major financial commitments by nations with few financial resources?

Those high-tech systems are worthwhile, of course, but to ignore the low-tech, boundary- and bureaucracy-indifferent news networks is no longer acceptable.

Learning from the Past

One week after the 2004 tsunami, Tsunami Lessons posted a report by National Public Radio science correspondent Christopher Joyce, who began his story on the PTWC’s response: “Seismologists have wired the earth. They listen constantly for vibrations from earthquakes.”

So, too, have the news networks wired the earth. They listen and inform using their satellite and land-line networks, bringing distant news events into homes in every nation so routinely that the world seems smaller because they exist.

Two years after thousands died due to a failure to communicate, American scientists and policymakers could advance their tsunami warning capabilities by opening a dialogue with the news networks. There's nothing stopping them from trying to devise a better system but their own policies and inertia.

The world shouldn't have to wait.