Can some tragedies be prevented?

Friday, January 7, 2005

There is nothing -- nothing -- funny about the loss of hundreds of thousands of human lives in a natural disaster like a tsunami. So don't expect any chuckles today to go along with your corn flakes.

Sorry.

Like so many of you, I have been astounded by the devastation, death and destitution that one earthquake can cause. And I have been heartened by the response of governments, organizations and individuals who want to help the tsunami victims in southern Asia.

While most of us in Southeast Missouri will never personally experience a disaster the magnitude of the recent earthquake and tidal wave, almost everyone has some story about personal tragedy: the loss of a loved one in an automobile accident, a home destroyed by fire, a tornado, a victim of a violent crime.

It is the magnification of personal tragedy -- by the thousands -- that makes a tsunami so overwhelmingly awful.

The families and friends of victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks have a good sense of what is going on in the areas affected by the tidal wave. So do residents of Florida and other areas hit by a series of hurricanes last year.

Cape Girardeau and numerous other nearby communities have experienced their share of natural disasters. The floods of the 1990s come to mind. Jackson's tornado will not soon be forgotten.

But look what happens in the United States when tragedy occurs: Steps are taken to either prevent a recurrence or minimize the impact.

That's why Cape Girardeau has a floodwall. That's why Ste. Genevieve has a new levee system intended to ward off a repeat of that town's devastating floods. That's why Cape Girardeau residents, at last, are getting a storm-siren warning system.

And that's why state and federal emergency management agencies have buyouts.

The buyout concept is simple: If certain areas are prone to repeated devastation, it's less costly to buy the property and move the occupants to relative safety.

How many times have you read in this newspaper or watched on TV as some areas of the world were hit by monsoon flooding with regular and predictable frequency? Most of the areas hit hardest by the recent tsunami have sustained untold loss of life and property damage again and again because of seasonal flooding.

And it's not just the Third World that can't seem to get out from under the punishing ravages of nature. How many times must a Florida homeowner expect his insurance company to rebuild his house after a hurricane? How many times must California wildfires or mudslides wipe out houses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars before building restrictions are imposed?

In the earthquake-tidal wave-monsoon areas of Asia, most of the worst devastation occurs within a short distance of ocean and river shores. Yet there is an enormous population concentration in these areas. Many of those who live there are poor. Land prone to annual flooding is cheap. The equation is self-explanatory.

The cycle of natural disasters, some more predictable than others, does not quash the human imperative to aid those in distress. Thank God. The scope of relief efforts in Asia have been astounding. So are the good intentions of millions of more fortunate humans around the globe.

It is likely that pledged relief funding will go far beyond meeting the basic needs of survivors. Might some of those billions be used to prevent a repeat?

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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