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Tsunami too staggering to comprehend

December 29, 2004

As survivors search with ever-decreasing hope and the spectre of disease fouls their already bleak prospects, I’m pretty well stuck trying to say anything worthwhile about it.  By the time all’s said and done, a million homeless and probably a hundred thousand dead.

It’s human nature to measure other tragedies by our most recent ones…

If you live in a town that was recently hit by a tornado, and five people died, then this is twenty thousand times worse – an incomprehensible thing.  It’s about 400 September 11th’s – completely nonsensical.  It covers thousands of miles of shoreline – too big to grasp. 

Sometimes it seems as if man and nature are in a competition.  In WWII we managed to kill about sixty-one million people.  World war one killed hundreds of thousands of people while the 1918 flu, worldwide, is thought to have killed between twenty-one and forty million people.  Add Cambodia, Rwanda, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s “cultural revolution,” though, and it seems that mankind is “winning.”

President Bush called this “one of the greatest natural disasters of human history,” and he is surely right in scope, if not in total fatalities.  There are many ways to measure tragedy but not many ways to talk about them without trivializing the intensity of the grief we see on the news.

Just for example, one news item was that since a continental plate has shifted downward as much as twenty feet, that the Earth is now spinning faster.  Each day is now one ten-thousandth of a second shorter than before the quake.  I heard a radio DJ joking that “it just seems like there isn’t enough time to get everything done lately.” 

The DJ may be on to something.  While the US mobilizes enormous amounts of aid with the international effort (“stingy” – hah!  We do more to help more people than any other country on Earth) it may be worth joking about the reaper.  Death will claim all of us – the least we can do is spit in his eye.

As always, I looked for articles about the scientific explanation because that’s what usually interests me.  But some news creatures just can’t help trying to sensationalize ( ! ) the horror.  I’ve seen several scientists interviewed on FOX news, and each one was asked “could this happen in the US?”  One made the mistake of referring to an unstable volcano that could, conceivably, send an unusually large tsunami towards our country.

News creature: “So this could be the big one, that wipes out the West coast of the United States?”

Scientist: “Well, no, it isn’t very likely at all.  I only meant there’s a theoretical possibility that…”

News creature: (interrupting) “So it is possible, though?”

I’ve heard reports of enormous cargo planes bringing aid, but trucks unable to deliver it due to lack of gasoline.  Also, a report that some governments knew about the wave hours before it hit, but had no system for warning the population.  Not even anyone whose job it would be to send out the warning if a system did exist.

One thing about our interconnected, news-and-policy-driven world: systems will be developed.  Countries can learn from other countries.  Scientists share information.  Even third-world nations have news media, and they’ll recognize the economic value of being able to forward tsunami warnings to listeners and viewers (and increasingly, text-messenging users.)

So there is good reason to hope that we’re heading for a better world.  At least as far as tsunami response goes.

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