05 November 2005

Knowledge Saves Lives.

A hundred lives were saved because a 10 year old girl from England, Tilly Smith, knew the warning signs of a tsunami and insisted on getting the word out in the face of skeptical adults.

Two weeks before the Dec. 26, 2004, disaster that took at least 178,000 lives, Tilly had studied tsunamis in her geography class in Oxshott, a community of about 5,000 just south of London. The children were shown a video from an earlier tsunami.

Tilly was armed with that knowledge when the Smith family decided to go for a morning walk on the idyllic beach near the JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa.

Suddenly, "I saw this bubbling on the water, right on the edge, and foam sizzling just like in a frying pan,'' she remembered. "The water was coming in, but it wasn't going out again. It was coming in, and then in, and then in, towards the hotel.''

She recognized it as an indication that earthquake-driven waves were only minutes away.

Tilly turned to her mother, Penny, "and I said, 'Mum, I know there's something wrong, I know it's going to happen -- the tsunami.'''

When her mother replied that it was just a day at the beach, "Tilly went hysterical,'' recalls her father, Colin, who decided to return to the hotel with her 8-year-old sister, Holly.

While Colin Smith relayed Tilly's warning to the hotel staff, the girl dashed back toward the beach filled with about 100 people. She told the Japanese-born hotel chef of the danger, "and he knew the word tsunami because it's Japanese. But he never saw one.''

The chef and a nearby hotel security agent both spread the warning and the beach was swiftly evacuated -- minutes before the devastating waves struck.

The beach near the Marriott Hotel was one of the few in Phuket where no one was killed or seriously hurt.

Many reports of her story don't mention the fact that Tilly's knowledge only made a difference because she was certain enough to make a scene, in the face of skeptical parents, and because she wasn't willing to wait for her parents to take care of their own family and go through proper channels. Knowing is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to save lives. Most of us are like Tilly, we aren't important enough by ourselves to make people act. We have to catch the ear of people who can make people act and present the facts with the certainty necessary to persaude them that action is required.

Of course, knowledge matters too. Tilly Smith's beach was one of only two locations in the entire Indian Ocean coast where the signs of a tsunami were recognized and people were evacuated. The other was the "Indonesian island of Simeulue, very close to the epicentre. Island folklore recounted an earthquake and tsunami in 1907 and the islanders fled to inland hills after the initial shaking —before the tsunami struck." As a result of an inability of almost everyone to read the warning signs: "The U.S. Geological Survey records the toll as 283,100 killed, 14,100 missing, and 1,126,900 people displaced." A third were children who went out to gather fish when the waters receded, unaware and with parents unaware, of the impending peril.

A high tech tsunami warning system can save lives, but hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved by a public education campaign similar to the familiar stop, drop and roll campaign for people on fire, or the campaign to get out and stay alive if you smell natural gas in Colorado. A 60 second commercial portraying what an impending tsunami looks like and telling people to run like hell for high ground when the waters recede would have been more than enough to save a majority of lives in this disaster. As estranged as I am from Boy Scouting, learning the signs of a tsunami was one of many useful tidbits of knowledge I remember from those days, along with tips on preventing deaths from flash floods, lightning strikes, tornados, fires and all manner of other disasters. Let's hope that low tech prevention isn't entirely squeezed out by high tech prevention before the next tsunami strikes.

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