Cost/Benefits of Early-Warning

Oh, what might have been! . . . what might have happened on the coasts ringing the eastern Indian Ocean last Sunday, as the killer tidal waves launched by the undersea earthquake approached them, if there had been better warning! Yes, people would still have died, but it’s reasonable to think that far fewer would have than those enumerated in the ever-rising death-toll (now over 40,000, and still rising).

Many of you will have already seen today’s New York Times editorial on the subject, which quite reasonably points out that, while the Pacific Ocean has long had a tsunami early-warning system (based in Honolulu), the Indian Ocean has nothing like that. But Iver Houmark Andersen of the Danish commentary newspaper Information has a bit more to add in Vital Minutes Were Lost.

First, check out the following quote from Pacific Tsunami Early-Warning Center employee Charles McCreery: If warned ahead of time about an incoming flood-wave, “you can get inland and to a secure area in about a quarter of an hour.” And this stands to reason: From the tales of the survivors in various press outlets, it seems that what you mainly needed was either some high land or something secure in the ground (e.g. a tree) to which you could hold on tight. Then consider that Thailand and Malaysia had an hour from the formation of the tidal waves until they hit, while Sri Lanka and India had an hour-and-a-half.

In Andersen’s article, Charles McCreery “is turning yellow and green in frustration” at his Honolulu office because of the obstacles he encountered last Sunday trying to warn the countries in danger of what he was fully aware was about to hit them. He called Australia, he called the US State Department and got word dispatched to the American ambassadors in the affected countries – that was no problem, although the impact of a short-notice warning, on a Sunday, from the US ambassador was clearly small. The Indonesian authorities he could only warn in writing (and remember, they had only an hour to react), and there were no official connections at all possible with any of the other countries. No wonder the New York Times editors can point out that what is already in place for the Pacific should also be there for the Indian Ocean as well. It seems a “no-brainer.”

But Andersen has more “what-might-have-been’s” to give us. Only last September did Geoscience Australia, a geological institute down-under, come out with a brochure pointing out the same thing: tsunami warning for the Pacific, but none such for the Indian. And even before that, in 2003, there was even a meeting on the topic with Indian Ocean-nation officials, recounted to Information by Robert Bradnock of King’s College (London) Geographical Institute. That turned out to be a meeting about filling the gap and actually setting up such a system for the Indian Ocean. But in the first place, such killer tidal waves were considered a low-probability threat and, in the second, there was general reluctance to bear the costs of establishing any Indian Ocean early-warning center.


Now 40,000 bodies have been recovered, and there are more to come. Yet Andersen is able to procure quotes for his article from a top Indian scientist – here, Satish Shetye, chief of India’s National Oceanographic Institute – which still rules out setting up any such thing. But you know what: Those two conditions still apply. Apparently killer tsunamis are indeed extremely rare; while the NYT editors speak of there being “decades before the next one strikes,” Charles McCreery says they can be expected every 700 years. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the next such disaster is due in 2704; anyone can still occasionally roll “double-sixes” with two dice twice in a row. (Although, geologically speaking, I can see how it’s quite possible that the fact double-sixes came up this year, so to speak, might make that happening again more or even less likely in the years to come. Commentary from any geologists is certainly welcome.) And yes, setting up such a center would be expensive, and these countries have enough to spend their limited budgets on, especially in the wake of this disaster. Especially for those determined to remain coldly rational even in front all the news-photos of grief from Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the like, one could well conclude that, actually, setting up such an Indian Ocean tsunami early-warning center should in fact still be placed way down on the list of these nations’ spending priorities.

Maybe the NYT editors are right in the end, in that they strongly hint that such an early-warning center should simply be a gift from the Americans. But it would need to be a “gift that keeps on giving,” i.e. with running operational costs continuing to be paid from Washington. (Even in Bangladesh, say, paying those geological experts that you need is likely to be expensive.) And there is a lot wrong with that picture, given what we know of the foreign posture and spending priorities of this US administration.

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