Tsunami-ravaged countries can thwart future threats

Published: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 11:52 p.m.
When it comes to the recovery process, the tsunami-stricken countries in south Asia have a choice of whether or not to adapt to destructive natural threats, according to a UF professor with more than 30 years of research experience on how communities heal after major disasters.
"What we very often do see is simply the re-establishment of the old system," said Anthony Oliver-Smith, an anthropologist whose publications include "Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster."
More people than ever are living in vulnerable places that will lead to worse disasters, he said. Options exist that would help these countries adapt to natural threats.
For example, coasts likely to endure tsunamis can benefit from mangroves acting as barriers that diminish impact, he said. Or they could rebuild farther inland.
"That is where politics and economics really enter in," Oliver-Smith said. "Whose interests are going to be favored in reconstruction?"
Development plans and policies worldwide have recently started to take into account natural hazards, he said.
Even so, adaptation can happen slowly, he said.
For example, after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, new standards for mobile homes were implemented, but today not all inhabited mobile homes were built after 1992.
The aftermath of a disaster goes through stages, and these countries have experienced a prolonged emergency stage, he said. This initial reaction focuses on the immediate response necessary to save lives.
Next comes rebuilding, and Oliver-Smith found it hard to offer an estimate of how long the process will take.
"This is not one disaster," he said. "Every place the tsunami hit was a different disaster."
His research includes a 10-year study of an earthquake that devastated Peru in 1970 and killed more than 65,000 people.
By 1980, he said the community had regained the stability and predictability necessary for daily life, but marks of the earthquake still remain today.
A society that has been developed to better handle known natural hazards will be less likely to severely suffer from them.
"The real problem, though, is moving from this understanding to having it affect the way people set up on the ground," he said. "And we're a long way from that."

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