THE wrath of nature and the power of the elements cannot be underestimated. Nor ignored. Malaysia may sit just outside the Pacific Ring of Fire but it was not spared the impact from the fourth-largest earthquake of this century, which occurred off Sumatra. Gigantic tidal waves, or tsunamis, that rolled across the region caught many countries unprepared because they rarely occur in the Indian Ocean. So there are no early warning systems in place.
Coastal dwellers in the Pacific, on the other hand, know the warning signs of a tidal wave, which is when the water recedes unusually fast and far from the shore.
The waves that hit Sri Lanka, which was one of the worst affected countries, were estimated to have taken two hours to reach the shorelines there.
The series of waves that hit Penang, Pulau Langkawi and the northern parts of peninsular Malaysia – which were geographically closer to the epicentre than Sri Lanka – also arrived around the same time and they also caught everyone by surprise.
Because we are not in an earthquake-prone zone, the tremors felt two hours earlier did not immediately translate into a warning to evacuate the coast. At our holiday island resorts, it was just another lazy Sunday morning to enjoy the sea.
This is a natural disaster of tragic proportions for our country and others in the region even more severely hit. We share in the anguish of those who have lost their loved ones.
In times like this, we see the heroism of the common people, we see the dedication of our rescue personnel, and we see the heart-warming gestures of volunteers who console grieving families by distributing food and drinks. We do not point fingers or apportion blame.
But with the benefit of hindsight, we must now have the foresight to prepare for future calamities.
Technology has yet to be able to predict earthquakes before they strike but technology allows earthquakes, when they happen, to be picked up by practically any earthquake-sensing facility anywhere in the world. The precise location and the magnitude are registered immediately. How that information is relayed is the key.
According to David Booth, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey, Britain’s geoscience agency, an Australian scientist had suggested in September that an Indian Ocean warning system be set up.
Booth said it would take a year to create one. All countries surrounding the Indian Ocean should now come forth and co-operate to make this happen soon.
The scientists in this region must be as interested in the study of earthquakes as their counterparts in other parts of the world.
It is ironic that at times like this, the experts who are able to educate us on what it is all about are those from the West.
For example, Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy’s National Geophysics Institute, likened its power to a million atomic bombs the size of those dropped on Japan in World War II, and said the shaking was so powerful it even disturbed the Earth’s rotation. “All the planet is vibrating,” he told the state radio.
And the body of knowledge must filter down to very practical levels.
Residents of high-rise apartments must not only be taught fire drills but also know how to evacuate in the event of a tremor. People living along coastlines must be able evacuate at short notices from their homes while beach resorts must have systems in place to warn their guests to abandon their sunbathing and head to safety should danger lurk in the waves.
Even our communication channels, from state TV to privately-owned stations, should have systems in place to alert viewers and listeners.
The effects of climate change are already playing havoc with our weather patterns. Nature sometimes gives us early warnings but men sometimes ignore the signs of Nature.
The earthquake that rocked the region – now upgraded to 9.0 on the Richter Scale – is sending a powerful message to all of us. If we do not act with wisdom and foresight, we will pay an even more horrific price in the future.