Tsunami Caused Natural Disasters Death Toll to Triple in 2004
Wall Street Journal, October 4th 2005
GENEVA — The Indian Ocean tsunami caused the global death toll from natural disasters in 2004 to triple from the year before to about a quarter of a million — the highest total in almost 30 years, the international Red Cross said Wednesday. Discounting the devastating effects of the Dec. 26 tsunami, however, the 2004 total would have been about 25,000 — one of the lowest figures on record, the agency said in its annual World Disasters Report. The previous highest totals from natural disasters, excluding long term events like famines, came in 1970 when about 500,000 people were killed when a cyclone hit Bangladesh, and in 1976 when 240,000 died during an earthquake in Tangshan, China, said Sian Bowen, spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. Last year’s death toll of about 250,000 was more than three times the 77,000 people killed in 2003, according to the report. Many lives were saved by individual warnings before the tsunami but far more could have been rescued with efficient and widespread alerts, according to the report. It said the tsunami killed about 225,000 people. “Early warning is the most obvious way in which accurate, timely information alone can save lives,” Markku Niskala, secretary-general of the federation, wrote in an introduction to the 251-page report. “But there are gaps in the way we gather and share this powerful resource.” Although scientists around the Indian Ocean had the technology to register the massive earthquake off Sumatra which triggered the killer waves, they had no way to tell people what was coming. But other informal warnings did work. An Indian who works in Singapore, Vijayakumar Gunasekaran, followed reports of the tsunami and phoned home in the coastal village of Nallavadu, urging his sister to “run out and shout the warning to others,” the report said. The warning, backed up by a phone call from another villager working abroad, was broadcast around the settlement on a loudspeaker system and a siren warning was set off. Although the tsunami destroyed 150 houses and 200 fishing boats, none of Nallavadu’s 3,630 residents were killed. The report highlighted the role of warnings during the 2004 Caribbean hurricane season, when most countries in the region were able to alert their populations of approaching storms and therefore saved many lives. Cuba was able to avert major loss of life even though Hurricane Charley destroyed 70,000 homes in August 2004, killing four people. A month later, Cuba evacuated more than 2 million people from the western tip of the island before Hurricane Ivan struck, and no one was killed. “When the storms are 48 hours away, authorities can target warnings at areas most likely to be affected,” the report explained. “Then local and neighborhood committees begin to check on vulnerable people, making sure that anyone in dangerous locations or with special needs — such as blind people or pregnant women — can evacuate.” Evacuation orders are mandatory in Cuba, unlike in neighboring countries, and public transport is provided to get people to shelters. But in nearby Haiti, there was no early warning of Hurricane Charley and no one was evacuated. More than 2,000 people were killed or lost. It is still too early to assess the impact of early warnings in this year’s hurricane Katrina and Rita, said the editor of the report, Jonathan Walter.