THE SCALE of death caused by tsunamis would be greatly reduced if buildings were constructed differently. But housing for the poor is always done by the cheapest possible methods.
In the United States guidelines for building in areas endangered by tsunamis require buildings to be elevated above the expected high-water level.
Jim Schwab, a senior research associate in the American Planning Association’s Research Department points out, “The space below need not be useless. It can house parking, recreational areas, or other uses that are easy to abandon in the face of danger.
“Much of the damage in a tsunami results from a wall of water smashing into ground level structures with no way for the water to pass beneath them.”
In Hawaii, after tsunamis hit the islands in the 1940s and 1960s, buildings were rebuilt beyond the reach of advancing water. In the capital, Hilo, the area between the city and the sea front was forested to provide protection. Elsewhere parks and promenades which could be easily evacuated were built.
Schwab adds, “Tsunamis rarely carry water inland more than a few hundred feet, and moving people even a half-mile inland will almost invariably save all but a few lives, and would surely have done so in most of the Indian Ocean communities.
“The few more difficult cases would have been the heavily populated resorts and other islands that afforded less protection and fewer means of escape from the advancing water.
“But even those might have been substantially evacuated, or people moved to higher floors of hotels, with adequate warning. Given the short distances that would typically provide adequate evacuation in all but isolated island communities, many people with adequate warning might well be able to escape on foot, since most people, even children, can hike a half-mile within 15 minutes or less.”
Schwab warns that the Atlantic is not free of tsunami hazards. As recently as 1929, a major tsunami resulting from the Laurentian Slope earthquake, killed 27 people in Newfoundland, Canada.