Technology Disappoints in Tsunami Relief

By David F. Carr Print this article Print

It's nearly half a year since a tsunami reduced the coasts of 11 countries abutting the Indian Ocean to rubble. Roads, bridges and houses still need to be rebuilt. Some relief workers think military and humanitarian organizations could use cheap, portable

Human remains lay scattered amid rubble and the stench of decay in Banda Aceh, the region hardest hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Three Pentagon observers had come to study how well the U.S. military was communicating with humanitarian groups trying to feed and house millions of displaced Indonesians.

But the military's training, computer networks and procedures were tightly controlled. They were geared for sending helicopters, ships and soldiers to war—not for helping civilians in a disaster zone put a roof back over their heads.

More than two weeks had passed since tidal waves swept 300,000 people to their deaths in Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and eight other countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. About two-thirds of the dead and missing were in Indonesia's Aceh province, where homes on a 150-square-mile strip of coastline had been crushed, and many of those inside were drowned or washed out to sea. More than 500,000 survivors were homeless.

The expedition's leader was Cmdr. Eric Rasmussen, a Navy doctor who had participated in humanitarian operations following a 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, as well as in wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even before he left Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, for Banda Aceh, Rasmussen had assembled a long list of logistical problems linked to communications breakdowns. On Jan. 9, in an e-mail to the United Nations, various humanitarian agencies and the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense, Linton Wells II, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., among others, he wrote:

Much of the work here is being done by cell phone, VHF radios and personal conversations. There is no Instant Message system, there is no collaborative space, and there is no consistent update of the information flowing around the theater. It's almost as if Third Fleet's Joint Operations Center had never existed.

Why was a doctor putting lack of a "collaborative space" so high on his list?

Because in its absence, aid workers were wasting time up in helicopters, surveying areas of the disaster zone that others had already assessed. With more sharing of information, they would already have been packing those helicopters full of food for the hungry and tents for the homeless.

Perhaps no one would die as a result—most fatalities occurred within minutes of the disaster—but that lack of "collaborative space" would cause needless misery for survivors, not to mention more wear and tear on relief workers.

Next page: Bad Data Nixes Good Planning

This article was originally published on 2005-05-04
David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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