2004 Tsunami, 10 Years Later

tsunamiOn Sunday December 26, 2004, at 0h58, the worst earthquake in 40 years reached 9.3 on the Richter scale and caused the 10 meter wave of the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. The waters devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, killing 170,000 there. Within 90 minutes they  reached the southern beaches of Thailand, killing another 5,000+. In all, some 230,000 people died.

Early Warning Signals 

systeme_dartIn 2004, there was no global monitoring and warning system that could identify the threat and alert populations of the tsunami trajectory and time of impact. Today, a global network of 60 nigh-tech buoys helps measure the size, direction and speed of tsunami waves. The time of impact and the size of the floods are predicted based on mathematical models and past experience.

Timely information is critical. In 2004, the Indian town of Madras was hit 2 hours after the quake but the authorities had not been informed because information was only shared every 4 to 5 hours. Today, 140 seismometers are present along the Indian Ocean coasts and three regional alert centers (in Indonesia, Australia and in India) are tasked with informing all relevant countries within 15 minutes. It took 12 minutes for news of the 2012 tsunami to be relayed.

There is a cost however. It is estimated that the maintenance of the system alone costs up to $100 million a year.

Education is Key

Despite the improvements in technology and communication, risks remain and human factors may be to blame. While the 2012 tsunami alert arrived in time, most of the population of Aceh (Indonesia) tried to flee by car which blocked the entire town. The town was saved and the population survived because the announced disaster did not materialize.

The population is also tired of hearing about tsunamis and often resists prevention measures – even criticizing education programs in schools and preparedness measures implemented by the authorities. Such attitudes were also present in some of the Japanese areas affected by the Fukushima tsunami – the protection walls proved insufficient. In New Orleans, people have also rebuilt their homes in zones considered at risk.

A new Era of Global Vulnerability

Tsunami_1Until 2004, we experienced half a century with no major tsunami disasters. As a result, coastal areas have seen major developments in infrastructure and population growth – particularly in Asia. In the last decade, the two important tsunamis have caused major disasters (Boxing say in 2004 and Fukushima in 2011) in the region. This is no coincidence, most earthquake activity occurs along subduction zones. Particularly along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”.

Human activity, often related to development and associated progress is partly to blame. The destruction of “mangroves” increases the vulnerability of coastal areas to tsunami waves by removing an important buffer zone.

s_s13_52151223

Picture credit: MTA

Rising sea-levels are another aggravating factor. Water levels are now 30 centimeters higher then a century ago along the New York coast. The unfortunate timing of Hurricane Sandy coinciding with a high-tide resulted in massive floods in New York and New Jersey.

Technology can certainly help but will never be sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of human nature. The 2004 Tsunami in Aceh that killed 170,000 also allowed for the reconciliation of the authorities and rebel forces in order to rebuild their community. This is the kind of cooperation necessary to overcome the global challenges that are upon humanity – climate change, poverty, inequality… Let us hope that we will not need a global disaster to start moving in that direction.

Related stories:

Why older people suffer more in environmental disasters

Climate change: A new Era of Global Vulnerability 

Town moves out of harms way

Town Moves Out of Harm’s Way

“We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, Albert Einstein

Soldiers GroveThis is the extraordinary tale of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, a village of 500 that was located along the meanders of the Kickapoo River to allow timber rafting and to get hydropower for its lumber mills. Proximity to the water was a mixed blessing. Situated at the bottom of a bowl surrounded by mountains, the town was prone to flooding. The small  floods they called “ankle ticklers” but once a decade a major one would be devastating. The courageous and stubborn residents would clean up and rebuild.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, Albert Einstein

1978 Flood 4With time, the floods got worse for reasons that were largely self-inflicted. Deforestation of surrounding hills reduced the amount of water retained by the soil and the runoff  caused erosion that filled the bottom of the river aggravating the floods. After studying the problem for three decades a $3.5 million dam and levee was proposed… to protect $1 million worth of property… In a rare moment of genius someone asked “what if we moved the town?” and the rest is history. In 1979, the town relocated to higher grounds 800 meters away.

Solar Town_PharmacyThe river still floods but the town has been spared and the people of Soldiers Grove have more time (and money) to come up with more brilliant ideas like becoming the first Solar Town in America.

Bill Becker, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), is one of the humble architects behind the move of Soldiers Grove. Here is his TED version of the story:

Relevant Links:

Soldiers Grove Solar Town

About Bill Becker

Free Online Course on Natural Disasters