From : Philip Buckle Philip

From : Philip Buckle Philip

Tsunami: How Many Disasters?

From messages to the JISCMail Natural-Hazards-Disasters email list

In January 2005.

From : philip buckle <>

Reply-To : Natural hazards and disasters <>

Sent : January 4, 2005 10:38:55 PM

To :

Subject : Tsunami - how many disasters


I'd appreciate any comments on the following ideas. I, Graham Marsh and Eve Coles at Coventry Uni (UK) will be talking to our students about the impacts of the earthquake and the tsunami when term resumes next week and challenging the students to improve on the management arrangements in place (or being put in place now) to support affected communities.

Their predecessors last year included a number of students (and the least I expected) who contended that the death of 30,000 Europeans in the heatwave of 2003 was not a disaster, but just an "accelerated process towards death" as the most vulnerable and the most at risk were the elderly. We were very surprised by this but we expect a more thoughtful and compassionate response from this year's students.

We shall be putting to them this idea.

That the Earthquake/Tsunami (often referred to in the media in the UK as the Asian tsunami) is not one disaster but a number of tragedies and disasters linked only by the hazard agents, the earthquake and the tsunami. Somalia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, for example, have little linkage between them and little in common, that is shared other than the hazard agents.

The sense that this is a single event derives from a Western perspective (based in London, New York etc and mediated through Western Governments and International agencies). for them this may be a single event.

This perspective may have little to do with the genuine and intense compassion shown by governments and agencies and publics, but it may be directly germane to how the event is managed. It may be too early to tell. But there seems to a real risk that the localness (and therefore local needs, local hopes and local contribution to the recovery of local people themselves) of the event will be lost in the scramble of major countries and agencies. This may be important to how assistance is managed and therefore how effectively it is provided.

It also puts a retrospective position that what may be most important is the hazard itself, not the risk nor the vulnerability. This harks back to the early days of IDNDR (and we have WCDR at Kobe imminent so we need to be cautious about being pulled backwards).

For myself these events again underline that in many important and substantial senses all disasters are local and all have to be seen in their geographical, political and cultural context.

Ironically perhaps the media emphasis here on injured and bereaved Western individual and families has highlighted this, as have the numerous stories of individual losses and acts of selflessness and, most ironically, has the way that donations from the public have lead Governments into stepping up their own assistance.

Perhaps these events are characterised most strongly and most pignantly at one level by the linkages between unaffected and affected communities and 'ordinary' people.

Philip Buckle

From : Robert Emmett Alexander <>

Reply-To : Natural hazards and disasters <>

Sent : January 5, 2005 1:07:23 AM

To :

Subject : Re: Tsunami - how many disasters

very thought provoking message - i hope that your students are grateful

for the perspective development that you're encouraging in your course

one concern (with apologies if any of your points/conerns are

misconstrued): while underlying vulnerability may be interacting with a

particular one-time event so as to result in an "accelerated process

towards death" and such that truly the concern is not the one-time

event but the multiple interrelated events that comprise that process

for vulnerable peoples (or otherwise diminish such life in lessening

human security or welfare), i still don't understand the link between

that statement and the statement that the focus thus needs to be on the

hazard itself and not the underlying vulnerability. as is repeated in

much of the social science literature and practitioner reports, the

series of hazards are just one part of the underlying

socio-economic-political processes that result in this vulnerability -

although a very significant part in highly at-risk areas, the focus can

not be on the hazards alone if the rest of the processes are what

separates those who are vulnerable to the event from those who are not.

instead, the focus should seem to be upon better understanding

processes towards sustainable human security - including (but not

limited to) disaster resilience.


bob alexander

From : Philip Buckle <>

Reply-To : Natural hazards and disasters <>

Sent : January 5, 2005 7:06:12 AM

To :

Subject : Re: Tsunami - how many disasters


you may have misconstrued what I meant, or was I obscure?

I agree with you that the focus needs to be on underlying processes that contribute to vulnerability rather than on the hazard agent. I was querying whether in the Tsunami/Earthquake disaster the emphasis (eg focus on warning systems) was being placed on dealing with the hazard in itself and not on reducing structural and systemic vulnerability and increasing resilience and capacity.


From : David Crichton <>

Reply-To : Natural hazards and disasters <>

Sent : January 5, 2005 10:39:25 AM

To :

Subject : Re: Tsunami - how many disasters

Interesting discussion between Philip and Robert. May I just comment from an insurance industry point of view?

The problem seems to be that many disaster management practitioners still do not separate vulnerability from exposure. For insurers, exposure is a separate concept, namely the value of people and assets located in a high hazard area determines their maximum probable loss and the amount of reinsurance they need to buy. It is not for insurers to question why people want to live in a high hazard area, but what they can do is reflect their vulnerability in the premium. The insurance industry is trying to encourage micro insurance in less developed communities to help people restore their livelihoods after a disaster.

As Robert will no doubt agree, there is a very high exposure in Hawaii, but the design and resilience of construction on the coast, means that vulnerability is relatively low, no doubt due in part to dialogue with the insurance industry. For example modern hotels like the Sheraton have virtually no assets on the ground floor except a reception desk, so a tsunami can flow right under the hotel causing little damage. The main exposure is people, but people are mobile so that exposure can be reduced quickly with effective warning systems, and everyone in Hawaii seems to know exactly what to do if the sirens go off, thanks to regular drills and education programmes.

I have visited the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, and know that they have the equipment, skills and technology to forecast tsunamis anywhere in the world, and even though this event was outside their remit, they did try to warn the Asian countries, but it was Christmas time and a weekend, so most of the phones they called were not answered. If the USA was prepared to extend the remit of the Pacific centre to a world wide role, the additional costs would be small and steps could be taken to set up a database of 24/7 contact telephone numbers around the world, together with automatic dialling systems. It would certainly be much cheaper than separate stations around the world.

Satellites could also have a much bigger role. There are three synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites which can actually track tsunamis in real time and measure their speed, height, and exact location. This could eliminate the false alarm problem. One is Canadian (RADARSAT), and the others are European (ERS 2 and ENVISAT - 1). Strangely the USA do not have any such satellites. They have already been used to spot rogue waves in the S. Atlantic which is helping with the design of new ships, and have even been used to spot and track the wash from drug runners' speedboats in the North Sea, resulting in captures and arrests. A constellation of SAR satellites could provide 24/7 coverage of the whole world. These satellites have many other applications: for example, using permanent scatterer SAR interferometry techniques developed in Italy it is possible to monitor vertical ground movements of less than 1 millimeter per year, with potential advance warning of landslides, volcanic activity and building collapse. The oil exploration industry and the insurance industry have seen the potential but there is little sign of interest from the disaster relief community - why is this?



From Professor David Crichton, 1 Quarryknowe Crescent, Inchture, PH14 9RH Scotland

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From : Koko Warner <>

Reply-To : Natural hazards and disasters <>

Sent : January 5, 2005 12:18:54 PM

To :

Subject : Re: Tsunami - how many disasters

Dear David,

In other hazard events, one hears anecdotes of people refusing to evacuate their homes because they fear losing assets. In the Western United States sometimes individuals remain in their homes in the face of forest fires, in Switzerland occassionally people do not evacuate even after avalanche warnings, and in developing countries sometimes people refuse to leave their cattle or boats.

Particularly in developing countries, could the provision of insurance or some other risk transfer tool help reduce casualties by assuring people that their assets will be restored if they are destroyed? There are individual exceptions, but your comments suggested that insurance and early warning may play complementary roles.

Your comments also suggest the incentives that insurance can provide to reduce the asset and human exposure to natural hazards. Where the insurance industry has been closely involved, such as in the instance of Hawaii or maybe California, would you agree that buildings and systems have been designed to reduce risk (including asset exposure) to natural hazards? If this is true, is there not a strong case for finding ways to involve financial services such as insurance in disaster management in developing countries?

These are rhetorical questions, but it would be good to spar enough dialogue to engage the insurance industry in developing countries. ProVention Consortium and others have done work to document the steps that need to be taken, and a few sessions will also focus on disaster finance at Kobe (such as the one SLF is co-organizing). What are the thoughts of the community on the ability of insurance to reduce risk and casualties by providing reassurance of help following a disaster?


From : David Crichton <>

Reply-To : Natural hazards and disasters <>

Sent : January 5, 2005 2:52:10 PM

To :

Subject : Re: Tsunami - how many disasters

Dear Dr Warner,

The psychology of reaction to warnings is very complex, and a great deal of research has been carried out into it. I would recommend the following sources:

Pfister, N.. 2002. “Community response to flood warnings: the case of an evacuation from Grafton, March 2001.” EMA The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, vol 17, no 2, pp19-29. Mt Macedon, Victoria, Australia. ISSN: 1324 1540.

Comment by David Crichton

There seems to be a widespread belief in the UK that flood warnings should be delayed until the authorities are absolutely sure that the flood will come, in case people panic unnecessarily. This fascinating and well documented case study shows that, at least in Australia, far from panicking the problem is trying to persuade people to take any action until they actually see the water coming. There is no reason to believe that the British are any different when it comes to flood warnings, but the writer is not aware of any British cases which have been so thoroughly researched as this one.

In March 2001, a large low pressure system passed over New South Wales, bringing torrential rain. The Bureau of Meteorology issued a flood warning that predicted the Clarence River would rise to 8.1m or more at Grafton. As the city’s levees were designed to give protection to 8.23m there was a very real danger they would be overtopped, flooding most of the urban area.

It was decided to advise the evacuation of 12,000 residents. However less than 10% of them left the city during the nine hours the evacuation was in effect.

In the event, the evacuation was not necessary, but the water came within 0.2m of the top of the levee. A detailed follow up in the two to three weeks after this event was carried out to find out why the residents had ignored the evacuation orders.

191 questionnaires were completed in a random telephone survey of residents of Grafton, of these, 90% live in flood prone areas. Only 22 respondents (13%) actually had evacuated to safe area. A further 47 (29%) would have evacuated if their doors had been knocked, or were waiting until the last minute. 97% were aware that an evacuation warning had been issued, mainly from the radio or from friends or neighbours, employers or pub landlords.

The conclusion of the researchers was that since the construction of the levee, the residents had experienced few direct effects of flooding and were less conscious of the flood threat, so less likely to act. Most had never considered the possibility of one day having to evacuate. Many discussed the situation with others, especially older people who said things like the “water never gets up to here”. Pubs were well patronised, giving others the impression that everything was normal. In particular, many visited a pub next to the river to see the water for themselves. Many were reluctant to evacuate because of the need to care for their pets.

This is a fascinating and important piece of research which is well worth reading in full. The EMA Journal can be contacted at

or see

Slovic, P., 2000. "Perception of Risk (Risk, Society and Policy Series, ed Ragnar Lofstedt))" 473pp. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London. ISBN 1 85383 528 5.

Comment by David Crichton:

Paul Slovic is Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, and is considered by many to be one of the leading risk analysts in the World. This is a very influential book which brings together the results of a 25 year international programme of research on perception of risk. It contains 26 important papers on the perception of risk, written by Slovic and others. Since 1970, when Slovic met Gilbert White, much of his work has concentrated on natural and technological hazards and public responses. Extensive psychometric surveys have been carried out all over the world as part of this research, covering a wide range of risks, from bicycling to nuclear power, and these have found that perceptions of risk vary considerably and consistently by age, gender and nationality. The papers cover many types of risk and responses to it, including insurance, and in particular the gap between expert views of risk and public perceptions. There are detailed papers on propensity to insure, and the risks of such activities or hazards as transport, damage to the natural environment, electro magnetic radiation, earthquake, flood, stock market investments, asteroids, nuclear waste, smoking, alcohol and drugs.

The papers are ordered chronologically which allows the reader to see how our understanding of public risk perception has developed. For example, risk is perceived to be higher if the hazard is unknown and uncontrollable, and if the effects are dreaded and visible. Much depends on the level of trust the public has in the authorities.

This is a very important book, the culmination of a lifetime of work by one of the world’s leading experts on risk perception. There is much to be learned from this book for insurers and for those dealing with hazard warnings and emergency management.

Certainly insurers should be closely involved with disaster management in developing countries. This is one of the aims of the Commonwealth Disaster Management Agency which is an insurance industry initiative to provide micro insurance and infrastructure insurance in developing countries in the British Commonwealth. However there is very little support from donor governments to setting up schemes in advance of a disaster to reduce the losses. The British Government does not even give any financial support to the UK Advisory Committee for Natural Disaster Reduction despite its commitments under UN ISDR. It will be interesting to see if it ratifies these commitments at Kobe. Prior to 26th December it was expected to ratify, but not spend any money, perhaps hoping no one would notice.

I am afraid that although some good people are helping the Provention initiative I am not optimistic. It claims to be an insurance partnership, but when it was established, not one insurance company joined, and as far as I know, none have joined since (I could be wrong, I have not paid much attention to it lately as it seems irrelevant to my work). It is left as being a very much World Bank/USA dominated initiative which has not captured the hearts and minds of the insurance industry in the same way as, for example, the UNEP FIII initiative.