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Preparing for Travel Disasters

In the wake of devastating recent natural disasters, including the earthquake in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, mud slides in Guatemala, river flooding in Europe, and the tsunami in South Asia, officials worldwide have been forced to confront significant gaps in their disaster contingency plans. This has led to a renewed focus on old problems: how to better anticipate hurricanes and earthquakes; how to evacuate affected areas efficiently; how to make a sometimes unpredictably dangerous world as safe as possible. "Generally, we don't think in terms of preparedness, we think in terms of response," says Arthur Lerner-Lam, director of Columbia University's Center for Hazards & Risk Research. "The truth is, from the standpoint of mitigation, of preparing for disasters, we are not doing a good enough job." There is progress to report, however: new technologies are being developed and deployed, and many countries have early-warning systems and detailed plans in place to assist potential victims, including travelers.

• TSUNAMIS Historically, tsunami alert systems have been born of tragedy. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and the West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, both of which use deep-sea sensors to measure changes in water pressure, were established after tsunamis damaged Hawaii and Alaska in 1946 and 1964, respectively. Last December 25, the PTWC broadcast a Pacific-wide bulletin seven minutes after registering a cataclysmic quake off Sumatra. Scientists tried to signal Indian Ocean nations; unfortunately, there was no disaster network for this region, where tsunamis had been a rarity, and budget-strapped governments had no civil defense structure set up to order coastal evacuations. The tsunami caused an estimated 240,000 deaths.

In the aftermath of this disaster, the White House announced a $37.5 million upgrade of the existing tsunami warning systems that would expand coverage to the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico coasts by mid 2007, and the U.S. Agency for International Development pledged $16.6 million to provide technical assistance for unesco's ongoing design of an Indian Ocean warning system similar to the PTWC's. "Would I like to say that a year later, we have a completed system?Of course," says Tim Beans, the Bangkok-based director of usaid's regional mission. "The good news is, we're well on our way." Last May, Thailand opened its own system, the National Disaster Warning Centre in Bangkok, which is linked to tsunami centers in Japan and Hawaii. When a tidal wave seems imminent, public warnings can be disseminated by national TV and radio and via 62 100-foot-high towers capable of broadcasting multilingual alerts along the southern coast, including Phuket and Phi Phi Don island. Travelers on group tours to Thailand can have their travel agent request cell-phone text message alerts from the disaster center's director (www.ndwc.or.th).

• HURRICANES/TYPHOONS As part of the ongoing $4.5 billion modernization of the National Weather Service by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seven new weather buoys were deployed in April in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. The data picked up from these buoys—measurements of wind, waves, barometric pressure, and temperature—are analyzed at the National Hurricane Center, using computer models like slosh (Sea, Lake, Overland Surge from Hurricane), a program that identifies storm-surge risks. NOAA's Web site (www.nws.noaa.gov) issues advisories and updates conditions every 12 hours.

The slow response to Katrina was an exception. Florida handled four hurricanes in 2004, and emergency officials took no chances with Hurricane Rita, ordering evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from the Florida Keys, Louisiana, and Texas. As Hurricane Emily bore down on the Yucatán Peninsula in July, the Mexican government mobilized hundreds of buses to carry 30,000 tourists inland from Cancún, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen. "Most countries do a very good job of getting tourists out,'' says Michael Lindell of Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center. "Resorts would rather lose revenue than lives.''

In Asia, Japan is at the forefront of typhoon tracking and preparation, and China evacuated more than 1.8 million people from coastal provinces in September as Typhoon Talim approached.

• EARTHQUAKES Scientists can make long-term prognostications about seismic activity, but predicting a specific earthquake remains impossible. Huge death tolls from events such as the Pakistan quake in October are preventable only by long-term investments and planning. Japan is considered a world leader in earthquake preparedness, yet the 1995 Kobe event killed more than 5,000 people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes. Richard McCarthy, executive director of California's Seismic Safety Commission, toured Kobe the following year. The Japanese had tightened building codes, reinforced existing structures, and prepositioned rescue equipment. California has incorporated some of those measures into its own earthquake plan: more than 2,000 bridges have been retrofitted and countless unreinforced masonry buildings shored up. "The lesson for us?Bad buildings collapse,'' says McCarthy.

One California company, Seismic Warning Systems, has developed a patented earthquake alert that is already used by some local fire departments, hospitals, and schools and has attracted interest from around the world. The paperback-sized QuakeGuard device detects P waves—speed-of-sound shock waves that travel nearly twice as fast as more damaging S (shear) waves—and begins automated emergency procedures, opening firehouse doors before they can jam, alerting surgeons in the midst of delicate operations, and shutting down gas lines. "A few seconds can make a world of difference,'' says Seismic Warning chairman George Dickson. "We can get early responders out to do their job."


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