Sun, May 22, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Helping before a disaster is better than helping after

By Peter Singer

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March, Brian Tucker was in Padang, Indonesia. Tucker was working with a colleague to design a refuge that could save thousands of lives if — or rather, when — a tsunami like the one in 1797 that came out of the Indian Ocean, some 600 miles southeast of where the 2004 Asian tsunami originated, strikes again. Tucker is the founder and president of GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce death and suffering due to earthquakes in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Padang is one of those communities. Just to its northwest, in Banda Aceh, 160,000 lives were lost in the 2004 tsunami. Now, geologists say, the fault that triggered that tsunami is most likely to rupture farther south, putting low-lying coastal towns like Padang, with a population of 900,000, at high risk of a major earthquake and tsunami within the next 30 years.

In Banda Aceh, the tsunami killed more than half the city’s population. In Padang, according to an estimate by the director of the city’s disaster management office, a similar tsunami could kill more than 400,000 people.

Tucker says that he has stood on the beach in Padang, looking out at the ocean and trying to imagine what it would be like to see a five-meter-high wall of water stretching across the horizon, bearing down on the city. Now that we have seen the footage of the tsunami that hit Japan, the demands on our imagination have been lessened — except that we have to imagine away the sea walls that Japan had built to reduce the impact of the tsunami.

True, those walls did not work as well as had been hoped, but Japan was nonetheless much better prepared for a tsunami than Padang is. In Padang, even with advance warning of a tsunami, higher ground is too far away, and the narrow streets too choked with traffic, for many people to get to safety in time.


GeoHazards International is therefore working on a more practical idea, which it calls a “tsunami evacuation raised earth park” (TEREP). The idea is to build small hills in low-lying parts of the city, with level tops that could be used as parks or sports fields. With the few minutes’ warning that an earthquake’s strong shaking would automatically provide, people could walk to a TEREP and be safe above the highest level a tsunami could reach.

Such raised earth parks are a low-cost solution to the tsunami danger in low-lying coastal areas. They use only local materials, provide a valuable community resource in normal times, and have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives when a tsunami strikes.

Nevertheless, GeoHazards International lacks the resources to build anything like enough TEREPs to meet the need. After 20 years of operation, the organization remains tiny, especially when compared to organizations like the Red Cross, which primarily do disaster relief work. People are willing to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to help people after a disaster — even after a disaster in a wealthy country like Japan — but are unwilling to invest anything like the same amount to save lives before a predictable disaster strikes.

One reason for this is that preventing a disaster does not make good television. People give to identifiable victims. If we build raised earth parks, we will never see the people who, but for our aid, would have died; no orphans in desperate need will appear on the nightly news. But isn’t it much better to keep parents safe than to help orphans after their parents have been killed?

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