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Knowledge Sometimes == Life

Back in 1964, I was a little squirt growing up in Seattle. I remember being fascinated when news reports started coming in of a giant earthquake off Alaska and of subsequent tsunamis spreading devastation along that great curve that runs from Alaska down to the west coast of Canada. I recall studying a photograph someone had taken of some bay somewhere that had been completely drained of water. This of course was the final warning sign that whoever took that photograph would get that he or she should be heading for the hills, pronto, instead of standing there taking scenic snaps.

Krabi, Thailand, 26-Dec, 2004: The curious finally realizing their mistake.

This morning's A.P. carries a story about how 181 villagers in Thailand escaped death from the December 26, 2004 tsunami by listening to people in the know.

Knowledge of the ocean and its currents passed down from generation to generation of a group of Thai fishermen known as the Morgan sea gypsies saved an entire village from the Asian tsunami, a newspaper said Saturday.

By the time killer waves crashed over southern Thailand last Sunday the entire 181 population of their fishing village had fled to a temple in the mountains of South Surin Island, English language Thai daily The Nation reported.

"The elders told us that if the water recedes fast it will reappear in the same quantity in which it disappeared," 65-year-old village chief Sarmao Kathalay told the paper.

So while in some places along the southern coast, Thais headed to the beach when the sea drained out of beaches -- the first sign of the impending tsunami -- to pick up fish left flapping on the sand, the gypsies headed for the hills.

Ever since I got done studying that photograph back in 1964, I've known that if I'm ever by a beach and I see all the water suddenly draining off that beach, that's my cue to run. Yesterday I saw some aerial footage of a town on Sumatra that had been creamed. Most of the town was low-lying and pretty much all that was left was mudflats, but there were a number of hills rising up out of those mudflats. The hills seemed untouched, their thick forest covers intact. Some people from that town probably knew what was going on and headed for those hills. One gets the impression most didn't.

I've heard a number of experts over the last few days saying that once the water drains away like that, you have between 5 and 20 minutes to try to get to safety.

If you are young and healthy you can cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes. Even if there aren't any hills around, you can at least put a lot of real estate between you and the beach. The farther you are away from the place where the waves will hit, the more water there has to be to catch up with you. With no hills around, or trees to climb, or sturdy and tallish buildings to make your way to, you will probably still get wet, but the forces the ocean will bring to bear on your frail body may be sufficiently reduced.

Of course, if you are not young (or are too young) or if you are not healthy and fit, you are going to have problems. I'm not sure what there is to be done about that. Get busy heading for the hills as best you can anyway, I guess. As we know, most of those killed in Asia were small children, the elderly, the frail and the infirm.

There has been much talk that there should have been a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean just as there is in the Pacific. This is clearly true, but I also have to wonder how much education, or the lack thereof, might have contributed to the breakdown of the one natural early warning system that comes prepackaged with every tsunami. I wonder how much the incomprehensible death toll might have been reduced if all the countries in the path of the killer waves had widespread and effective systems of elementary education, especially in the sciences, wherein Interesting Facts are taught to children -- like what the water draining out of a bay means, and what you ought to do about it.

Not everybody had the good luck of having the Morgan sea gypsies nearby with their experience and knowledge of the sea. Maybe elementary science education would have helped fill that deadly gap in their luck. The water started draining away at the beginning of the work day. The sun was up. People were out on the beaches. I've seen video after video of people standing around just as the killer waves started coming in. Those beaches and nearby areas should have been deserted. We should not be seeing any videos whatsoever of these waves, except perhaps footage shot from airplanes flying high above the impending disaster.

So take a moment this morning to promise yourself that if you are ever on a beach that is miraculously losing all its water you will turn away from the beach and begin running for higher ground. Promise yourself that you will scream a warning to anyone you pass. If you are on a flat landscape, start locating candidate trees as you run, sturdy buildings, anything that might help you survive the deadly surge that you know is breathing down your neck. Put as much space as you can (that would be "space" as in dry land) between yourself and what is coming for you.

Look, I'm not blaming anybody for anything. I don't have the facts regarding what most of those who died knew or didn't know about the meaning of water draining away from nearby beaches. But I do know this: you don't have an excuse anymore for not knowing what to do if you see it happening on a beach near you. Don't stand there in wonderment and awe and maybe even some delight as you witness the power and majesty of nature. The ocean is coming for you. The ocean is going to try to kill you. In the immortal words of Monty Python: "Run away!"


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I've been amazed, also, that so few people seemed to know that basic fact about tsunamis. I don't know exactly when I first became aware of it, but I know I was pretty young, because I remember having nightmares about the ocean receeding and then the big wave coming in. But here's a story in the NY Post telling of at least one other situation where someone knew - in this case a yung British girl who warned a bunch of the older people around her: http://www.nypost.com/news/worldnews/37579.htm

Gaw, thanks for that link. It certainly makes the point about Science Education In Action.

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