Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Earlier this week, the world saw what will probably be the biggest natural disaster in modern history: an underwater earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale generated massive tsunamis ("tidal waves") that battered a number of south-Asian and African countries (Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia, Thailand, etc.) washing away buildings, throwing cars and trucks around like toys, and killing tens of thousands of people.

To understand just how big this earthquake was, it is important to understand how the Richter scale works. The Richter scale is a logarithmic scale - so, for example, the magnitude of an 8.0 earthquake is 10 times the magnitude of a 7.0 earthquake. The earthquake that triggered these massive tsunamis on Sunday was 9.0 on the Richter scale - ten times an 8.0 earthquake, and 100 times a 7.0 earthquake. To put this in perspective, the earthquake that shook Japan in late November was 7.0 on the Richter scale, and earthquakes that even break 8.0 on the Richter scale are rare. This earthquake was huge.

What is particularly sad about this disaster is its destruction was focused in one of the poorest areas of the world; areas that are ill equipped to handle this type of disaster for a number of reasons:
  • Houses are often not built under strict building codes, and may be use weak materials (corrugated steel sheeting, etc.) that are less capable of protecting the house's occupants than stronger materials could.
  • Local governments lack the resources for emergency response to provide food, shelter, clothing, potable water, and medical attention to victims.
  • Poor people are far less likely to have insurance to cover their losses, and are likely to be financially devastated as a result.
  • Poor people are far less likely to possess some key items that may relieve their situation: stockpiles of canned food, vehicles, money, etc.

It is for these reasons that help from the world community is sorely needed in this tragedy. While 100,000 people were killed by this disaster, hundreds of thousands more were injured, and another million or more were left homeless and without food, shelter, clothing, or drinking water. If the world does not act, the injured will not receive medical care, diseases like cholera and typhoid (which are caused by drinking polluted water and eating contaminated food) will rear their ugly heads, and we will have hundreds of thousands of additional deaths that could have been prevented.

The United States and other countries have announced funding for relief efforts. But, what I think is needed now on the short term is not money, it is military aid. Military forces around the world stockpile items that can be used to survive in adverse conditions: lightweight packaged Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), water purification tablets, vaccines, medical supplies, and the equipment necessary to deliver or air-drop these items to inaccessible areas. Military forces maintain the personnel and equipment necessary to setup field hospitals and perform surgery in the field. Money is good, but boots on the ground and donations of actual supplies are better on the short term. I hope that countries around the world recognize this and react accordingly.

My thoughts and prayers are with all of those who died, who were injured, and who lost loved ones in this disaster.