He calls himself a “compassionate conservative”óthis commander in chief of the carnage fields in Iraq. But when one of the world’s greatest natural disastersóthe giant tsunami waves of destructionóstruck South Asia’s millions of human beings on Sunday morning, George W. Bush was AWOL for over three days.
On vacation again, Bush had delegated the representation of our country to a second string press man who announced that the U.S. government would give a paltry $15 million to the relief effort. That was our nation’s immediate image as the death toll soared over 100,000 souls in the midst of unimaginable devastation and looming infectious diseases.
When the Iraq-obsessed Bush finally emerged from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the assistance sum was upped to $35 million (little Spain is giving $68 million). Bush, bristling before public criticism of his belated mini-start, did what he usually does. He hid behind the American people. “We’re a very generous, kind-hearted nation,” he declared.
It is not the American peoples’ generosity we’re worried about, Mr. Bush, it is your failed leadership to take the helm of the world’s relief effort. Great humanitarian missions are historic opportunities to bring the best out of our country and its people as they rush to the aid of the innocents. The victimsóboth residents and touristsócame from 40 countries.
Unparalleled opportunities for solidarity among a wide expanse of the world’s peoples elevate the best instincts of humanity and its governors. Divisions, tensions, bigotries, and violent conflicts are submerged by these common expressions of care, love and rescue. For Bush, since many of the victims were Muslim, it would have softened the daily belligerence that they see him emitting for many months. Such sensibilities seem to escape both the President and his hard-nosed advisers.
Then there is the matter of our nation’s readiness for natural calamities. A gigantic earthquake, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, opened a fissure the length of California off the coast of Sumatra. The quake had an estimated force of one million Hiroshima size atomic bombs, which propelled tsunami waves at 500 mph in many directions. With sudden impact, they slammed into Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Malaysia, and as far away as Somalia in Africa. Waves rising 60 feet high and reaching up to 10 miles inland struck with no advance notice, because such waves are invisible until they hit shallow coastal waters.
But in an age of instant communications and precise seismic instruments, there should have been advance warnings for millions of people. What nature did not do, technology could have done. Yet these populations at risk were treated as if they were living in the 19th century, given the multiple breakdowns that occurred that Sunday.
Instantly, the Pacific Tsunami Center in Honolulu, among other stations, registered the earthquake’s intensity and location. It was the biggest earthquake in the world since 1964 when Alaska was struck. The ensuing waves of these tsunamis took 7 1û2 hours to reach Somalia, crushing hundreds of coastal communities in their wake.
The first populated areas were flooded within an hour, yet for hours there were no alarms sounded either by radio, television, internet, or any other telecommunications technologies for the soon-to-be inundated areas. Australian embassies were warned by their country but diplomatic protocols and other bureaucratic reasons stalled the news inside those stately edifices.
So, in spite of all these electronic technologies that its innovators and promoters have told us would change the world, human and institutional failures rendered them inoperative for those critical hours. Compounding the tragedy, unlike big hurricanes, people can quickly run away from tsunamis to higher ground and save themselves.
Early explanations of these failures don’t wash. One is that the watchdogs did not think the Indian Ocean experienced such tsunamis as did the Pacific Ocean. It is not a function of oceans, it is a function of powerful undersea earthquakes.
The United States spends a good deal of money on earthquake research, both on land and sea, and their consequences. California and western Tennessee, alone, require such attentiveness. But the United States has stations around the world as well. Maybe George W. Bush should order a real readiness plan for homeland security on natural disasters, even if he is told there are no terrorists behind them.