Technology Disappoints in Tsunami ReliefBy David F. Carr | Posted 2005-05-04 Email Print
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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.