Mother Nature, terrorist
There is a sameness to brutal natural disasters. It's the final body count that chillingly distinguishes one from another. Last week's tsunami in Southern Asia, which rose up from an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, swamping 11 countries and quickly claiming more than 120,000 lives, is already one of the worst floods in history. With our minds focused on war and political terrorism, Mother Nature proves to be the worst of all terrorists in the horror of her sudden assault on vulnerable innocents.
Not only has she taken lives inexplicably through sudden violent force but continues to do so in the aftershock of contaminated water, bad food, inadequate shelter, downed power lines, spreading disease, and decomposing bodies. Add to this the emotional suffering of survivors and those who have lost loved ones, and even of those who watch from afar.
These are times when humanitarian hearts everywhere salute the heroism of rescuers and pour out millions if not billions of dollars of aid for the survivors. Be it a flood in Sri Lanka or an earthquake in San Francisco, needs are great but also rather basic: clean water, food, safe shelter, and sanitation. Emergency medical care, antibiotics, blood products, and vaccines. Logistical capacity to distribute aid to where it's needed. Communication links to find lost loved ones. And faith that survivors have a chance to rebuild what they have lost.
Preparedness. But our technological age and networked planet can do more, as this current tragedy shows. We have never controlled the ways of Mother Nature, but we have been successful in avoiding her treachery by learning how to get out of her way. Preparedness drills, disaster warnings, and moving to higher or dryer ground have saved countless numbers of lives here and around the world. The Galveston, Texas, flood of 1900, the worst natural disaster in American history, took as many as 10,000 lives, including numerous children, and destroyed a thriving city. Now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gathers intelligence on impending storms through the National Hurricane Center, which signals evacuation orders to threatened regions, making today's hurricanes more irksome than lethal. In 1948, two years after a Pacific Ocean earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit Hawaii and killed 150 people, NOAA began monitoring the gyrations of the ocean basin. Today, using underwater seismic sensors and wave-tracking devices, NOAA can warn of tsunamis in the Pacific from minutes to hours before they hit. And with ever improving technology, warnings are transmitted instantly to state and local emergency management officials, as well as to international partners from other Pacific Rim countries in the Americas, Asia, the Pacific islands, Australia, and New Zealand.
In the wake of last week's disaster, President Bush has already had discussions with Sri Lanka about extending the tsunami warning system to the Indian Ocean, and India also has expressed interest. It will cost money. Some experts fear that preparedness expenditures in the midst of disasters, when aid is most plentiful, take away from current victims. Others opine that sensor monitoring of the Indian Ocean is just too expensive to justify since tsunamis are so rare. This either-or thinking does not serve human health needs well. Indeed, caring for patients of today should not keep us from doing better for the patients of tomorrow.
Serving with the American Red Cross, I witnessed the washed-out roads, collapsed buildings, and far-flung rubble of Princeville, a small North Carolina town founded by slaves after the Civil War. It was completely destroyed by a massive flood in 1999. In a nearby rescue center, I met an elderly woman who told of standing alone in her house there, as water gushed in and quickly rose to chest level. Struggling out to her porch, she grabbed a chair underwater and shimmied up on her roof, where she clung to its shingles for more than seven hours, mostly in darkness, as she prayed to the Lord and listened to the distant cries of her neighbors. Though still shaky, she told me how happy she was to have painted her house that summer, and looked at me as if I were a dunce when I reassured her that someone else would redo her paint job. "You don't get it, Dr. Healy--how do you think I learned to get up on my roof?" I have not forgotten her wisdom. If we choose to live in health with Mother Nature, we still have lots to learn about preparing for her fury.
This story appears in the January 10, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.