December 28, 2004

Early warning

My article on the tidal wave disaster on


Anonymous said...

Mr. D'Souza- How unfair and easy to criticize the Officer at the tsunami warning center. Instead please blame the callousness of the political system and politicians you have in India. Mr Tad Murthy had approached the Govt. for building the Warning system- Indian Govt Refused to cooperate!!
Also, Indonesian officials did recv the warning and they did nothing to evacuate. Indian officials are worse. Rem the Gujarat cyclone- despite 36 hours warning- there was no evacuation.

You ask a poignant question- why does so many people die in India in a tragedy and so less in the Developed nations. Compare 41000 dead in iran vs. less than 100 in SF for a quake of same density.
The answer is economic prosperity in the developed nations allowed them to create better facilities thus minimizing the death. In poor areas, the people live in vulnerable conditions which are easily destroyed and hence the huge casualties.
I think the answer is to fight poverty and create more opportunities for the poor to live a decent living.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Dear Anonymous,

I didn't mean to criticize the officer, and I thought the article made that clear. I do think that business about the address book was absurd, but apart from that, I'm quite aware of the hurdles in getting the word out, due entirely to the callousness of the political system and such like in India.

The answer is indeed economic prosperity, fighting poverty. In some sense, this was the point of my piece, the reason I said the ultimate early warning system is in tackling poverty and making lives less vulnerable, more secure.

Anonymous said...

Even if the early warning would have come , I don't think its easy to pass on to the people, Because many people are not educated enought to understand the warnings. The only thing we can do is , stop blaming and try to get our poeple more educated , so that we can prevent such things from happening in near future.

Anonymous said...

While I regret the loss of lives, I don't like these type of reports . The Pacific center for Tsunami Warning is setup because they experienced so much of it they decided to setup one. If you read the article in timesofindia about Tad Murthy , he clearly says that he forwarded the Idea to the Government of India but they rejected it saying that they have other things to worry about and they can take it one at a time as it comes. Though you can say that the center could have called an Indian embassy official , what would you expect from this irresponsible people. They didn't even send a rescue unit until 2 days after.
Why complain others when the Indian Government and the state Gov. can't do what it is supposed to do. An Indian is offering to consult for free, but the Gov. says they don't care . They are too busy blaming each other (Politicians) Where lies the blame , take it to the right place. Don't comlain about someone else in "That part of the World" when they are not even considered by "your part of the world".
I was glad to know that people took it upon themselves to do whatever they can to rescue and help others in need.
This is definitely a lesson for the people and they should just stop voting for the money they get. Just think about this disaster and decide who was genuine.
With the financial aid that comes after only the family which survived will be able to use it.
If they put some thought to it before it happened there won't be a need to ditribute money to the affected families.

Tanuj said...


It seems that Dilip has essentially agreed to your point about the Indian government being callous. Is there another point to your tirade that I am missing?

Having said that, looking back - if I put myself in the shoes of the Indian Government and think about what I would do with, say, a few additional million dollars that I somehow obtained a few years ago, I would probably not invest in a tsunami warning system either.

a. India has never experienced a tsunami before
b. There are millions uneducated, millions unemployed, millions of kids malnourished, millions of acres of farmland not irrgated, millions homeless

- what would you invest in - books? schools? labs? scholarships? canals? wells? reservoirs? dams? houses? tsunami warning systems?

I am not suggesting that the Indian goverment thought of it this way, but my point is this: catastrophes don't have the same impact on prosperous countries/people as they have on the poor. Warning system or no system, the only way to have people become more resilient to casualty is to make them prosperous, educated, and hopefully, living in real houses.

Balakumar said...

Its so heart-wrenching when you see the impact the sea had on folks along the coast. There is one particular video clip that show a few people holding on to some support as the waves lash at them and then after a while a strong current comes along and drags a couple of them away even as 2 of the people try to desperately reach out to them. A total shame that in this age of technology there is not much that could be done to warn these people.

The apathy of the American and Japanese officials borders being criminal. The US has experienced these before and know what to expect. So why then didn't they just warn the countries in the danger-path when they knew an earthquake measuring 9 had struck the ocean floor? I am sure some of their "experts" would have been able to predict the after-effects even without gadgets. They said even a 3-4 minute warning would have been sufficient. They had 3-4 hours between the earthquake and the tsunami!!!! 3 to 4 hours!!! 50000+ lives. A shame indeed!

And now, the US has pledged $15 million to the affected countries; while they spend billions bombing out 2 civilisations with depleted uranium and state-of-the-art machinery. Criminal apathy!

Agreed, India and other South Asian nations must work on their infrastructure and learn to fend for themselves. But isn't it the responsibility of the "advanced" nations to help along. If India can send 4 naval ships to Sri Lanka, I am sure the US could do better to help the affected nations.

Its heartening to see individual volunteers stream to the affected regions to help the survivors come thru this disaster.

Anonymous said...


I read your Rediff article and can't agree more. I am incensed with Mr. McCreedy's response - I went to Google, typed in "Indian embassy", and the very top-most hit was the Embassy in Washington DC's Web site, and 3 or 4 clicks later, I had their telephone number and FAX number. Surely Mr. McCreedy and his staff could have done the same thing? And, to put it another way - his organization exists to provide warnings about one of the Earth's most deadliest form of disasters. Is it too much to think that such an organization should have a "hotline" to the US State Dept., if not to the White House itself?!? Let's turn the tides here and imagine this same scenario was happening in the Pacific, with Hawai'i targeted for a 30-foot tsunami, along with other island nations. Surely beyond notifying the local Hawaiian Civil Defense organizations the NOAA would want to notify higher-ups in the Federal Government? We've got an Early Warning system for atomic missiles coming in from all over but not for Mother Nature's stealth underwater missiles ...

As for your comments on Earthquakes and death tolls ... I live in Los Angeles, and I've lived through several 6.0-or-larger quakes here, including the 7.1 Northridge quake of nearly 11 years ago. I think you already know the answer why quakes over here, whether in Los Angeles or the Loma Prieta quake near San Francisco in 1989, cause relatively little loss of life compared to the quakes in poorer parts of the World. America is not a Third World country, and - especially in California - we have rigid earthquake standards for buildings that must be met. Not to say that they all stand throughout the quakes - but the key thing is that, unlike in very poor parts of the world (like, say, Bam in Iran - one site on the 'Net where a traveler posted pictures from a trip through Iran in pre-earthquake 1999 said, quote, "When you consider the material that is used to construct Bam, it is even a wonder so much of the city still stands. The red desert clay, mixed with straw and ``other organic material'', looks like it will come apart if anyone just looks at it."), quakes in the States are simply not going to turn dwellings into instant matchsticks, killing their occupants, like they do in places like Bam. An earthquake is significantly less dangerous (not to mention far less scary) once you are outside and in the open - it's being inside the buildings that's the dangerous/scary part. "Earthquakes don't kill people - falling buildings do"

One of the interesting ironies of the tsunamis and India to me is that in most areas of the world, beachfront property is at a premium, and people living there are generally wealthier than those that live inland because of it. Yet I am told that the beachfront area around Chennai is known for its slums and sewage and extremely poor fishermen and their makeshift accomodations. And that most Indians do not (or cannot) swim, due to old conservative values, with the result being a huge cultural divide. (Why is that the case?) In rural areas I could understand this, but in urban areas (I have a friend in Chennai; I have no reason to suspect that it is not a reasonably cosmopolitan city) I would expect that the same phenomenon - i.e., that beachfront property would be considered at a premium, and owned by the upper classes/castes - would be the norm. But of course, ultimately, the tsunami does not distinguish or discriminate between rich or poor - I am sure the death tolls would be similar in either case.

Ultimately, however, I see no solution to this - as long as there are hordes of poor huddled masses close to the coast, there will always be events that kill far more than they should. And there will never be a solution to the problem of the poor in India as long as there are 1+ billion people on the continent - the more there re, the more poor there will always be. (In case someone wants to take me to task for this, let me state that I feel that the 280 million in the United States is also far too many - I think that every time I get caught in a *weekend* traffic jam! - overpopulation, no matter where it exists, will always end up with the have-nots in larger percentages numbers-wise. I really despair for the future of this planet ...)

Anonymous said...

Its nice to see these well thought out comments. I think Tanuj above captured the essence of it when he said that the priorities of the govt were in setting up schools and other such things rather than the Tsunami warning systems as there is no immidiate history or concern regarding the tsunamis.
As for your McCreery comment, I don't think it would have made any difference because getting the word out to the street would have been very very difficult in the absence of an established proper chain of command for such or similar events. Now I don't know how it works in India's coastal areas but here in florida where I live, we get a lot of hurricanes. Even though they are predictable, there are well defined evacuation routes which people can take in case of emergencies.
This was a tragedy and in my opinion blaming others for this will not serve any purpose.

Dilip D'Souza said...

I really don't think I "blamed" McCreery for the tragedy in any sense! But as I said before, I do think the address book comment was absurd. If that was the obstacle, it doesn't take more than a minute or so, as many others have pointed out, to get over it. Google, directory inquiry, whatever.

Can't make this longer, I'm in Chennai on a slow dialup, trying to get going on moving through some of the affected areas. I would love to continue this discussion, will check back in when I can. Thanks for all your thoughts, though.

Senthil Kumar said...

You know I would not blame McCreery, even if Mr.McCreery, have found out what is going to happen in India, could he have warned any body in India?? Absolute NO.!! From when did your home ministry started taking these calls and considering them as important. I fscking live in India and I dont even know the home ministry number. Ok,I know the Fire Prevention number and what do they tell me, Sorry Sir the traffics been very hard, we cant come in. So if you will, please forgive Mr.McCreery's, he simply can not do anything.

Anonymous said...

Why don't we have any satellite photos of the Indian coast line ?
Why can't ISRO publish these photos so that everybody is aware of the extent of the damage ?
Who is going to monitor what this govt is doing wrt to preparing for the next disaster ?

It seems we would be better off with the British or maybe the Americans this time.