Thursday, December 27, 2007

Third Anniversary Show Offers Nothing New as PBS Recycles Remembrance of 2004 Tsunami; Were No Lessons Learned in Past Three Years?

NOTE TO VISITORS: Thank you for dropping by the Tsunami Lessons blog.  The underlying premise of this blog is this: Had a protocol been in place at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center -- painstakingly implemented and coordinated with the world's major globe-circling media in the quiet time before the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 -- one telephone call after the earthquake could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the Indian Ocean.  

Our most recent post here at Tsunami Lessons (below) was at the third anniversary of the Christmas 2004 tsunami, and we've not been updating this site due to the absence of a compelling reason to do so. We said what needed saying in the three years immediately after the event, and you're encouraged to read our posts from the beginning -- especially those in early 2005. 

However, the release on December 21, 2012 of "The Impossible" -- a film on the 2004 tragedy -- is reason enough to begin promoting the above premise. The emergence of Twitter and other social media will give this blog new opportunities to proselytize on the importance of building the world's major media into emergency notifications to the world's population.

We like to think our recommendations here on the Tsunami Lessons blog to improve media-based tsunami warnings have been heeded, but we're not so sure. The third-anniversary post was a downbeat take on the retelling of the TV documentary that keeps showing up, with no new information about lessons learned on how tens of thousands of lives might have been saved. Please do read this blog, especially if you have responsibility for tsunami warnings anywhere in the world. Some of you still need convincing. 

2012 UPDATE: The Tsunami Lessons blog, written by Carlson Communications, received a Gold Award (Humanitarian) in the HERMES Creative Awards 2012 competition. With a movie

Here's our Third Anniversary post, written on December 27, 2007:

Barely three months after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in December 2004, Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA program aired the documentary “The Wave That Shook the World” on Tuesday, March 29, 2005.

To mark the second anniversary of the tragedy, NOVA aired the same program on Tuesday, December 19, 2006. This week, NOVA’s choice for a remembrance of the third anniversary on Tuesday, December 25 was – you guessed it – the very same documentary.

Approximately two years and nine months have passed since “The Wave” was first broadcast. One might have reasonably expected new insights and new lessons learned to have emerged in that time to merit a fresh look at the mindsets and operational systems that failed to prevent tens of thousands of deaths in the first hours after the quake.

It’s a futile hope. “The Wave” program highlights the same attitudes and beliefs that were formed in the first three months after the tragedy. How could it not? It’s the same program. Nothing new is offered in these repeats, and one might conclude that the producers and scientists interviewed in the show have an interest in hammering home their “we did everything we could” litany – even though it’s obvious they didn’t do the one thing that could have saved lives.

Ignoring the Media Connection

That many of those deaths were preventable is not in doubt. This blog chose to remember the second anniversary a year ago with an exhaustive review of “The Wave” program’s transcript, focusing on the collective “blind spot” shared by the program’s participants on how they might respond to a major quake in the region. Here’s how we headlined that post:

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


What would have saved lives was the activation of links to globe-circling news media – the central point of this blog since its inception on January 2, 2005. It’s the argument we’ve made repeatedly over the past three years, and a thorough reading of our posts going back to the beginning will show that others share this view.

But those links were not in place in December 2004. The “terrible truth” in our headline is that scientists and the public affairs personnel within NOAA had no game plan to activate if a magnitude 8+ earthquake struck the Indian Ocean region.

What Did They Know…and When?


Just seconds from the end of “The Wave” and almost as an afterthought, the documentary includes this quote by one of the scientists interviewed for the program:

“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.”

Precisely. Within a week of this blog’s inception, research for this blog found a report on the proceedings of the Nineteenth Session of the International Coordinating Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific in Wellington, New Zealand, September 29-October 2, 2003. As we reported on January 8, 2005, four NOAA officials, including the director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, attended this conference.

Page 30 of the report states: 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.

Continuing, page 48 says: "...the Southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis."

And the Point Is…..?

Knowing what they should have known about the potential for destructive tsunamis in the region, what did the PTWC and NOAA do to create a warning system that might actually save lives? Nothing has emerged in the past three years to suggest they did anything. Need proof? Here’s the quote of a PTWC scientist about two-thirds through “The Wave” as seen in 2005, 2006 and 2007:

"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?'"

A Chicago Tribune reporter put it this way:

“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.”

What They Could Have Done

They could have activated a link to the major media – the very same media networks that for generations have efficiently moved news around the world wirelessly in seconds. They could have but didn’t because they had made no plans to do so.

And as far as we can tell, they still haven’t. Millions have been spent on high-tech solutions – new buoys, new computers, new this and new that. There are new SOPs for connecting with media in the United States, but we’ve seen no evidence of new procedures to use the news media to reach people in the tsunami-prone regions where hundreds of thousands died three years ago.

Anyone interested in reading more about all of this can start with last year’s second anniversary post and continue with our first post on January 2, 2005 and subsequent entries.

If a producer of “The Wave That Shook the World” happens to be reading this, please relegate your 2005/6/7 editions of the program to the history shelf. A fresh look at this tragedy is long past due.

We already know the terrible truth of 2004. Next time, we hope you’ll have found reasons to report on new initiatives that will use 21st century communications to warn unsuspecting people of their peril from the next big wave with the potential to shake the world.