Early Warning System
Suraya and I visit Malaysia (her home country) every other year, usually at Christmas time. Two years ago today we were on the island of Langkawi, which is on the border of Thailand and Malaysia. Langkawi has sustained tremendous damage in the wake of the tsunamis; the final death toll is not yet known. If the earthquake had occured two years to the day earlier than it did, we would almost certainly have been on the beach when the tsunami hit. Or, for that matter, if our travel plans this year had been more in line with our normal preferences, we would have been on the beach in Penang or Langkawi or Phuket yesterday when the waves hit. (This year there were several family events taking place right around Christmas that made it impossible for us to schedule any beach time.)
One thing might have stopped us from doing so. We were having a late breakfast and watching CNN yesterday morning when the news broke about the earthquake. As I mentioned in my previous entry, I thought the fact that the earthquake occured on the far side of Sumatra from where we were would prevent Malaysia from having to worry about tidal waves. But I think that had I actually been on the coast, I would have suggested staying well away from the water...just in case. The CNN report mentioned the possibility of tsunamis, but there wasn't any warning to stay out of the water. There was no sense of urgency, at least not in the initial report I saw. It wasn't like, say, a tornado warning.
I can't help but think that a number of tourists in Phuket and the Maldives and other places watched that report before turning off the TV and heading to the beach. (The tsunami danger that was mentioned was only for India and Bangladesh.) If the report had been a very specific warning not to go near the water, I think some lives would have been saved.
There's been some discussion about how a tsunami warning system could be put in place for the countries impacted by this catastrophe. Some official government-sanctioned system would probably be a good idea, but failing that an educated media would certainly help. If CNN and the BBC had immediately begun broadcasting a warning that all coastal areas within the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea were in danger of imminent tidal waves, hundreds or even thousands of lives may have been saved. It's true that there are millions of poor in Indonesia and Bangladesh who live in remote areas and probably don't have access even to BBC radio, much less CNN. But local broadcasters would have quickly picked up the news, as would law enforcement and other agencies. Word of mouth could have accomplished quite a bit.
Memetics is still a new field; we have a lot to learn about how ideas are propagated and how they spread. But can anybody doubt that an unambiguous warning of danger would have spread much more quickly and would have reached many more people (especially if repeated continuously throughout the two hours) than a note to the effect that hmmm, there might be danger? It's all about urgency. I'm not trying to be critical of the media. As others have pointed out, this is such a rare thing to have happened it's no wonder it caught everyone off guard. Still, in light of this catastrophe, a very positive step for media organizations to take would be to recognize the role they can play in mitigating this kind of disaster in the future.