Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

The Tsunami and the Hurricane

Since Sunday night, when I first heard that Katrina had been upgraded to a Category 5 storm and could quite possibly obliterate New Orleans, I've been thinking about the tsunami that smashed into south Asia last December.

I gather I'm not the only one: howardtayler castigates Mayor A. J. Holloway of Biloxi for saying "This is our tsunami."

And it's not, of course. Katrina telegraphed her course much better than the tsunami did, giving much more advance warning. Katrina didn't affect nearly as large an area as the tsunami, which swept over thousands of miles of coastline.

What I really keep thinking about are the lives lost. We know Katrina has claimed 60+ lives already, in Louisiana and Florida and Mississippi. That figure will probably rise to the hundreds in the final count, but almost certainly not top a thousand.

The tsunami of December claimed so many lives, in so many ways, that it's hard even to find a definite number. Even now, nine months later, the figures range from 150,000 to 283,000.

Or more.

I remember the bank secretary saying "There are always disasters happening" and thinking "Not like this, there aren't."

And part of me can't help feeling that this vast discrepancy in deaths isn't all about Katrina being a less powerful disaster, one that was visible from a greater distance.

You can predict tsunamis are coming, too. Did you know that? Hawaii has an early-warning system that has allowed them to evacuate to high ground in the face of past tsunamis. (And triggered a few false alarms, but that's a comparatively small price to pay.)

A seismologist in Thailand had predicted years earlier that a tsunami would hit the country, and agitated for such an early-warning system. He was a laughingstock before December 26. They've taken him a lot more seriously since.

It's not all about nature picking on Asia and leaving us alone.

It's about a nation being so wealthy that the vast majority of New Orleans residents were able to flee by car. Being so wealthy that they have massive levees and flood pumps designed to protect them from disasters. That houses are built to rigorous enough building codes that even those who were too poor or fragile to leave still mostly escaped unharmed physically. What kind of disaster do you think a hut in Indonesia can withstand, compared to what a house in New Orleans can? And even New Orleans' building codes aren't as demanding as those of hurricane-prone Florida. If Louisiana got more hurricanes, they'd have suffered even less damage.

Even less. And don't think I mean just the cost of "things": thirty of those deaths in Biloxi were caused by the collapse of one apartment building. A more durable building probably would have saved them.

I can't help thinking that even if nature threw something as awful and terrifying as that tsunami at America, or Canada, or Europe, it wouldn't be anything like as devastating as it was in south Asia, in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Our wealth does more than by us pretty trinkets and Internet access and air conditioning: it saves our lives. In all kinds of ways.

It even saved people in Asia; probably hundreds of thousands more would have perished to contaminated water, exposure and disease if the wealthy nations of the world had not pumped in support, in the form of cash, emergency teams, and well-trained manpower.

Sometimes I think "Aren't we prosperous enough, as a nation, that it doesn't matter if the GDP grows or shrinks by a few points? What does all this money get us?"

Today, I am thinking about 200,000 dead in Asia, and the tiny fraction of that who perished to Katrina. And I am wondering: How much richer would we have to be to save them all?
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