Tue, Dec 28, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Lessons from a disaster

Death loitered on the heels of Christmas this year. A massive earthquake near Indonesia generated tsunamis that engulfed coastal areas of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia and Thailand. The death toll has exceeded 23,000, countless homes have been destroyed and electricity supplies and communications are cut. Receding floodwaters have left scene after scene of devastation and a human toll that cannot begin to be contemplated. This is a terrible day.

It is the time for everyone, in the face of this disaster, to consider themselves global citizens and, regardless of national difference, reach out a helping hand to the suffering with acts of love and humanity.

When news of this disaster broke, the government immediately convened a task force to send rescue teams to disaster areas through aid agencies serving Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Airlines have also sent special flights to repatriate Taiwanese tourists in the region.

Both the government and private sector have responded rapidly, but the International Red Cross has said that the disaster areas are still desperately short of medical professionals, medicines, blankets, drinking water and food. Taiwan, having recently experienced the 921 Earthquake, has gained considerable experience in disaster relief and post-disaster reconstruction in the public and private sectors. Although Taiwan is unable to make much of a contribution internationally in a number of circumstances, the NGOs based here, such as the Taiwan Red Cross, the Tzu Chi (慈濟) Buddhist Compassionate Relief Foundation and World Vision Taiwan, can provide opportunities for delivery of aid so that the victims of this disaster can receive support from the Taiwanese public.

This weekend's disaster was the result of tsunamis generated by a shallow earthquake under the ocean floor measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. Since Taiwan was some distance from the center of the quake and shielded by large land masses, it escaped the assault of the tsunamis. But witnessing the terrible destruction that tsunamis are capable of inflicting, this country, which does not have a tsunami alert mechanism in place, should take heed.

Taiwan experienced a tsunami caused by an earthquake in 1867 which caused considerable damage and loss of life. Located on a fault line between two continents, Taiwan faces different threats depending on the epicenter of the quake. Facing the Pacific Ocean, the mountainous eastern part of Taiwan can effectively fend off tsunamis, but the plains of the west coast are susceptible to a tsunami triggered by a movement of the Philippine continental plate. Such an incident could cause serious casualties in this densely populated area.

Taiwan's disaster response mechanism must be upgraded in view of the terrible situation playing out in South Asia. The Central Weather Bureau must be able to immediately notify the public of earthquakes and tsunamis through collaboration with seismological and marine authorities in other countries to evacuate people at risk. The Ministry of the Interior should also include tsunamis as part of its disaster response drill. Disaster response units should draft a plan regarding tsunami alert sirens and emergency evacuation as soon as possible. These drills should be conducted periodically so that local governments and the public can be made familiar with what to do in the event of a tsunami to minimize the human toll.

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