He calls himself a “compassionate conservative”—this commander in chief
of the carnage fields in Iraq. But when one of the world’s greatest
natural disasters—the giant tsunami waves of destruction—struck 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 victims—both residents and tourists—came from 40
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
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 ½ 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
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.