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SINGER: When Prevention is Better than Relief

SINGER: When Prevention is Better than Relief

PRINCETON – When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March, Brian Tucker was in Padang, Indonesia. Tucker was working with a colleague to design a refuge that could save thousands of lives if – or rather, when – a tsunami like the one in 1797 that came out of the Indian Ocean, some 600 miles southeast of where the 2004 Asian tsunami originated, strikes again. Tucker is the founder and president of GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce death and suffering due to earthquakes in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Padang is one of those communities. Just to its northwest, in Banda Aceh, 160,000 lives were lost in the 2004 tsunami. Now, geologists say, the fault that triggered that tsunami is most likely to rupture farther south, putting low-lying coastal towns like Padang, with a population of 900,000, at high risk of a major earthquake and tsunami within the next 30 years.

In Banda Aceh, the tsunami killed more than half the city’s population. In Padang, according to an estimate by the director of the city’s disaster management office, a similar tsunami could kill more than 400,000 people.

Tucker says that he has stood on the beach in Padang, looking out at the ocean and trying to imagine what it would be like to see a five-meter-high wall of water stretching across the horizon, bearing down on the city. Now that we have seen the footage of the tsunami that hit Japan, the demands on our imagination have been lessened – except that we have to imagine away the sea walls that Japan had built to reduce the impact of the tsunami.

True, those walls did not work as well as had been hoped, but Japan was nonetheless much better prepared for a tsunami than Padang is. In Padang, even with advance warning of a tsunami, higher ground is too far away, and the narrow streets too choked with traffic, for many people to get to safety in time.

GeoHazards International is therefore working on a more practical idea, which it calls a Tsunami Evacuation Raised Earth Park (TEREP). The idea is to build small hills in low-lying parts of the city, with level tops that could be used as parks or sports fields. With the few minutes’ warning that an earthquake’s strong shaking would automatically provide, people could walk to a TEREP and be safe above the highest level a tsunami could reach.