Wednesday, December 29, 2004

I am involved in mankind
I am involved in mankind
-Keith Olbermann
Dec 29, 2004

New York —

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.”

John Donne's 17th Century work, "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions" is, again, all too pertinent, and doubly meaningful. The Christmas Tsunami death toll figures appear this morning like some wild, unimaginable inflation.

The Associated Press counts 67,000 dead in the eleven nations of the Indian Ocean. Reuters News Services calculates 69,900. A United Nations spokesman believes the toll just in Aceh Province, Indonesia, will be between 50,000 and 80,000. The International Red Cross currently confirms 68,000 deaths, and predicts the number will cross 100,000.

More terrifying still is the growing realization— reported sporadically in South Asia and Europe but almost unmentioned here— that some percentage of these deaths could have been prevented by timely warnings, but were not, out of fear of damaging tourism.

Bangkok's newspaper The Nation reported that Thailand's Meteorological Department, which supervises the country’s Seismological Department, was conducting a seminar at the hour the earthquake struck, Sunday morning, prevailing local time. Told the initial Richter Scale measurement was 8.2, a leading member of that department reportedly concluded there would be no tsunami, because another 2002 earthquake in the same Sumatra region that had measured 7.6 had produced no tsunami. The meeting devolved into the pros and cons of hurting the nation’s huge tourist economy in the event a warning proved unnecessary.

Thailand had faced the identical dilemma in the recent past. The United Kingdom newspaper The Scotsman quoted Thailand's Seismological Bureau Director Sulamee Prachuab as saying, "Five years ago, the Meteorological Department issued a warning of a possible tidal wave after an earthquake occurred in Papua, New Guinea. But the tourism authority complained that such a warning would hurt tourism,” especially when no tsunami materialized.

None had hit the Indonesian coast since 1883, after the eruption of the volcano at Krakatoa Island.

According to today’s The Asian Wall Street Journal, a seismologist in Canberra, Australia, recognized the tsunami threat, but says he was warned against sending out an alert as to the likely impact to the Indian Ocean nations, because an Australian official reminded him of ‘international diplomatic protocol.’

In West Sumatra, Indonesia, a local seismologist’s equipment went off so loudly Sunday morning that he thought workmen had begun repairs in an adjoining garage. He spent an hour trying to contact local authorities - and found no one in their offices.

While Thai officials continued to insist the impact on tourism was never a factor in whether or not to issue a tsunami warning, one of the unnamed sources of the Bangkok paper disagreed. The individual, whom The Nation reported attended Sunday’s conference, was quoted as saying, "The very important factor in making the decision was that it's high (tourist) season and hotel rooms were nearly 100 percent full. If we issued a warning, which would have led to evacuation, (and if nothing happened), what would happen then?… We could go under, if (the tsunami) didn't come."

Thailand's Information and Technology Minister says an investigation of the Meteorological Conference will be conducted.

By the latest Reuters account this morning, 1,657 are confirmed dead in Thailand, and another 8,954 injured.

More than 1,500 Swedish tourists are still reported missing.

At the time the Thai experts reportedly concluded they would threaten the nation’s economic health by alerting the public, the tsunami was still more than an hour away from hitting Thailand’s coast. It appears that most of the fatalities there could have been averted had the victims merely been told to walk about a mile inland, which they could have done, leisurely, in 45 minutes or less.