What Happened to Tsunami Notice?

A French blogger, Philsland, who subscribes to the USGS earthquake notification system reports he received a notice of the earthquake 3 hours before the arrival of the tidal wave that engulfed 10 countries in Asia. The notice read:

“A great earthquake occurred at 00:58:49 (UTC) on Sunday, December 26, 2004. The magnitude 9.0 event has been located OFF THE WEST COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA. (This event has been reviewed by a seismologist.)”

A press affairs officer at the USGS center in Golden Colorado verified to me that they did detect the quake and that they notified the US Department of State. (The Tsunami Warning Center detected the earthquake under the Indian Ocean within minutes of its occurrence, but issued a limited warning because of their narrow jurisdiction, according to a report by Christopher Joyce on NPR.) Whether or not quick notice to the impacted nations was possible or could have saved lives we don?t know, but the incident raises several questions about the competency and priorities of the Bush Administration.

First, what happened to the notice sent to the State Department? As of noon today, press officials in the Deputy Secretary’s office have not responded and officials at the East Asia and Pacific desk of the DOS were not able to determine if they received the notice, although USGS confirmed that it was sent to the Operations Center at DOS. If it did not reach decision-making levels of the DOS, why not? If it did reach decision makers and it was not immediately sent to consulates in the affected nations so they could contact the local authorities, this could have contributed to a catastrophe that will be felt for decades. Again, why not?

Second, why the low level of US response? Secretary of State Powell told ABC that initially the US would provide $15 million with another $10 million going to NGOs plus nine patrol planes and some C-130s carrying relief supplies. This was called ?stingy? on CNN Tuesday by Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief coordinator, but he flip-flopped this morning under pressure, calling it ?generous?, especially after the DOS announced another $20 million, bringing the total to $45 million. This is $5 million less than the cost of the President?s inaugural, .03% of the current cost of the war in Iraq and about 2% of initial estimates of damage costs – which will surely rise. Why so little?

Third, where is the vision? The damage from the tsunami is estimated at $13 billion. We could pay for it several times over with the money being wasted on the unneeded and unworkable missile defense system boondoggle, among others. The tsunami offers the Administration an opportunity to use our nation?s wealth and expertise to lead a true coalition of wealthy nations in a regional rebuilding effort. (The State Bank of India set up a local effort the next day). The US could regain the respect of the world – not to mention of its own people – with a visionary plan of rebuilding villages, farms, water systems, schools, roads and homes in the flooded nations. That is the vision of a great leader. Instead Bush offers a few million dollars and a handful of planes carrying food. Where is the vision in this?

The world came to America’s aid after 9/11. The tsunami offers us an opportunity to give back – and to get back our greatness. All that is necessary is that the Administration realize that the United States is a nation built on a vision of freedom, not a selfish collection of corporate self-interests uncomfortably in bed with religious zealots whose common goal is cut taxes and kill government. Commonwealth must trump wealth if the world is to survive. The tsunami offers the Administration an opportunity to rejoin the commonwealth of nations and ensure everyone’s survival.

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