As the number of deaths caused by the Dec. 26 tsunami continues to grow and is now beyond 221,000, lecturers at the Tsunami Symposium last night shed light on the many diverse and devastating natural disasters they believe are sure to happen in the future — possibly even in the United States. The lecturers also expressed concern with the world’s failure to communicate and organize relief organizations, which they say may have been responsible for many unnecessary deaths.
Daniel Birchok, an anthropology graduate student, said diplomatic conflict played a part in the number of deaths resulting from the tragedy — especially in the hardest hit Aceh region in the northwest corner of Indonesia.
“Reports of damage and relief efforts (were) slow to start because of military restrictions,” Birchok said of the problems foreign reporters and aid workers faced when trying to enter the country.
Before the tsunami, no foreign reporters or aid groups were allowed to enter the region and even now the government has limited foreign involvement. Media, military and aid groups have been permitted to enter the region, but they must leave after three months, Birchok said.
The speakers agreed that human responses on the individual, state and national levels need to improve when dealing with this natural disaster and the ones to come.
“We fully expect it to happen again,” said geology Prof. Larry Ruff, “When? We don’t know.”
Ruff, a seismologist whose main focus is on large earthquakes in the subduction zone — the area beneath the oceanic and continental crust that generates most of the world’s earthquakes —-— explained how earthquakes create seismic vibrations that are ultimately responsible for causing buildings to fall on people and raise large tsunami waves.
“It’s horrifying to think that the entire ocean is being lifted in a matter of minutes,” Ruff said.
He added that it is particularly dangerous when earthquakes occur in shallow water because it leads to wave elevation as well as increased speed and is disastrous for populations living in lowlands with high population densities.
Ruff also gave advice on how to survive a tsunami such as moving quickly to higher ground. He said smaller waves are as deadly as larger waves because of the debris they collect … ” Ruff said.
Gregory Button, a lecturer in the School of Public Health, also emphasized the need to educate people on how to recognize certain signs and to prepare for natural disasters because they will happen again.
“We tend to damn ourselves by making the same mistakes,” Button said. Alaska, for example, has experienced three tsunamis in the past 100 years. As a result Alaskans have established escape routes and warning systems and consider themselves a tsunami-ready community.
However, Button said, not all people have access to these means of information and communication before, during and after natural disasters.
Flawed communication after the disaster can also be deadly, Button said.
“Some of these deaths were totally unnecessary,” he said in regard to the lack of communication between response efforts.
Button also stresses that it is important not to stop helping because even two to three years from now people will still be living as refugees.
LSA senior Katie Yang said she agrees with Button in that there is not enough coordination among relief groups. In response, Yang, who is a member of the United Asian American Organization, a group made of University students, has set up a tsunami committee. The committee will focus on educating other students on the tsunami, as a way of contributing to the relief effort.
“We wanted to do more to educate people and raise awareness to help people realize this is going to be going on for 10 to 20 more years,” Yang said.
LSA junior J.J. Andrick said he enjoyed the symposium because of the many angles and perspectives it offered on the tragedy.
“It showed the causes and effects an earthquake has. It’s not just the science, it’s not just the people, it’s also the overlap,” he said.