Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Boxing Day Tsunami

People are still watching the human drama unfold that is the Boxing Day Tsunami. It's on the news. It's on the radio. And it's bad. Every day the count goes up: today the AP death toll is estimated at 139,394, but it will go up some more. I'm impressed by the world's efforts to bring humanitarian aid to the affected regions.
Several times I've heard or read someone say that this is the worst natural disaster in history. Being historically minded, my ears always perk up when someone says something like that. Anytime someone says something is the biggest, or the worst, or whatever, in history, you better check your facts. Usually when people say something is the most <adjective> in history, they really mean for this year, or that they can remember, or that they heard of. And they're almost always wrong. I understand that this is the Age of Hype & Hyperbole, but someone needs to put the brakes on the misstatements! Why am I even comparing? Because calling this event "the worst disaster ever" is to disregard the tragedy and insult the memory of those who suffered and died in other disasters. (And, from a technical standpoint, it makes the claimant look ignorant).

There are many ways to rank disasters--loss of life in actual numbers or percentages, cost of damage to property, or the size of the regions affected. In none of these ways is the recent tsunami the worst--not even in living memory. Here are some examples. I'll restrict myself--for now--to events within my own lifetime:

Dateline: Bangladesh, April 29-30, 1991. The lush delta created by the confluence of the Magma, the Brahmaputra, and the Ganges rivers is home to 120 million people. Cyclone Marian assaults the delta with godlike fury, hurling wave after wave towards the shore. Tidal surges reach up to two stories high. Marian tears apart the region with winds reaching nearly 150 mph. Before it's done, it will have killed more than 130,000 people and a million cattle. It'll leave nine million homeless, 374,000 acres of crops damaged or destroyed, and salt in the drinking water and fields. Still, that's less than the '04 tsunami, you say? Maybe, but we've already shown the damage isn't unprecedented. And we're just warming up.

Dateline: Tangshan (Tianjin), China, 3:42 AM, July 28, 1976. The industrial city of Tangshan, home to 1.6 million people, is built on a fault line, and the western plate under Tangshan shifts five feet northward. The entire city erupts in the violent throes of an earthquake. Buildings collapse upon themselves, including a hospital with 2,000 people inside. Bridges sway and collapse. People are literally thrown into the air. Power is lost throughout the city and darkness consumes the carnage. The whole thing lasts less than 20 seconds, and by some estimates 80,000 are immediately killed. Geologists will later measure it as an 8.3 on the Richter scale. An aftershock measuring 7.1 will soon follow. We may never have an accurate number of deaths caused by this earthquake. The Chinese government officially reported 240,000 killed, but more realistic estimates put the number much higher--between 660,000 and 750,000. The injured made up another 750,000.

Dateline: Bangladesh again (err, okay, East Pakistan), November 12, 1970. Another cyclone--tidal wave combination. With winds up to 122 mph, and a tidal surge nearly thirty feet high, almost two million acres suffer under the onslaught, leaving up to 500,000 dead and thousands upon thousands more homeless and starving.

Don't you remember? No? Why not, do you suppose? Not born yet? OK, decent excuse. But how about those of you over 30? Did the media ignore it? Not likely. Could it be because there weren't American tourists among the dead? Ouch! Maybe we'll just say that we have short memories. That's less confrontational and probably also true. (After all, how many "Trials of the Century" do you remember having before 2000?)

Permit me to extend my scope to living memory and I'll do you one more. Back to China: the summer of 1931, the Yangtze River basin. The Yangtze has been notorious for flooding for two millenia, but this one was the worst. More than 70,000 square miles are flooded and 400,000 killed in the flooding. Disease and starvation resulting from the flood kill--by some estimates--over three million more. Overall more than 50 million people were affected-- a quarter the population of China.

I could keep going, but you get my point. The Boxing Day Tsunami is a massive disaster. I don't wish to minimize it. But don't hype it up as the worst disaster of all time, because it's not. "All time" is big. And it goes back a long way.


At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Well said. You are so right. People really do hype up what they want to. Even my deodorant is called Right Guard X-treme Sport. They've got X-treme Cooler Ranch flavor. Saltines SaltAssalt. . . It really does injustice to discount these events like they never happened. Like you said, there were no Americans among the affected in those earlier events and that is always a validating factor. I'm glad you wrote this. I'm going to share it with my friend Taskin. He's from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and may find it interesting. We were just talking about how this was the break Bangladesh has been waiting for. "Finally, someone experiences natural disaster besides us! Pass the Palau!"

At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wat about ninjas?
nnjas are kool, you are meant to talk about them
ninjas can just jump off of a 10 storey buildings and survive, and also, as soon as you see one, your alredy dead.
there may be lots of casualties, but ninjas give out more, for all we know, a ninja could have been there and alredy got everyone before it hit!

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