Tsunami early warning

Published: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 10:50 p.m.
Four hurricanes ravaged Florida this fall, causing billions of dollars of damage but exacting a negligible toll on human life. Contrast that to the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean and claimed as many as 150,000 lives.
In many ways, the Florida coast resembles that of many of the tsunami-stricken areas of the Indian Ocean rim; densely populated, barely rising above sea level, vulnerable to the horrific forces of wind and water.
But it isn't that hurricanes are less lethal than tsunamis. It's just that we've gotten a lot better at spotting, tracking and predicting the probable path of killer storms.
Eliot Kleinberg is the author of "Black Cloud: The great Florida hurricane of 1928," an account of the great storm that killed as many as 3,000 people in this state. The science of hurricane tracking in the 21st century is such, he writes, that "we receive days of warning that a storm may be coming our way. We can brace our homes or run like hell."
The natural disaster in the Indian Ocean has brought the nations of the world together for one of the largest rescue and relief efforts in history.
Billions of dollars are being spent to assist victims and try to rebuild ravaged communities. But from that worldwide effort should come something more than simply a massive reaction to the last catastrophe.
Working under the auspices of the United Nations, world leaders should begin now to plan and construct an early warning system that will at least allow time for evacuation efforts in the face of future tsunamis. Such a system wouldn't provide a warning of days, but even a few hours of hurried evacuations could save many lives.
A partial system already exists in Hawaii, where the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center relies on sensors on the ocean floor and transmission buoys on the surface to detect and pass on indications of underwater seismic activity. But even that network remains incomplete.
In the wake of this latest tsunami have come proposals to establish a more comprehensive series of warning systems for the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans as well as the Caribbean.
"We're already looking into the practical elements of what such a system would be, what it would cost and who would run it," Larry Roeder of the State Department told the Associated Press this week. "There has been talk over the years that maybe we should have a global system, but it's expensive."
But the case for a global tsunami warning system may now have become more compelling than its cost (the estimated cost for an Indian Ocean warning system is $20 million, not counting communications links to coastal areas).
One reason for the high death toll in the Indian Ocean nations is the fact that coastal areas worldwide are becoming more and more densely populated. Even a few hours of advanced warning could save tens of thousands of lives in the path of an approaching killer wave.
"We have the technology, we have the system in place," U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said recently. "All we need is the commitment to carry this off."
The United Nations will hold a World Conference on Disaster Reduction later this month in Kobe, Japan. The U.S. State Department is working on a plan for a Global Disaster Information Network for presentation at the conference.
Establishing a tsunami warning system ought to be as much a national security priority as a gesture of worldwide solidarity. Those who assume "it can't happen here" are fooling themselves.
"If you had a huge tsunami hitting Florida or New York - or it could go right up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River - you would have a major disaster," Roeder told the AP.
Out of tragedy in the Indian Ocean can arise a worldwide cooperative effort to minimize future disasters. That would be a fitting tribute to those who perished for lack of adequate warning.

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