While offering their prayers and donations tothe survivors of the Asian tidal waves, CostaRicans are taking stock of their own level ofpreparation if a similar disaster should occur here.The swelling death toll of more than 150,000 sofar in various Asian countries has lent new urgencyto the development of warning systems on shorescloser to home.It is not a mere possibility waves as high as those thatdecimated coasts in Asia could batter the beaches ofCentral America – it has already happened.Awave towering more than 30 feet bore down on theNicaraguan coast in 1992, scoured entire villages fromthe coast, claimed 170 lives, injured hundreds and displacedthousands.THE difference in the numbers of lives lost between Nicaragua and southeast Asia is not a questionof foresight, rather of the amount ofcoastline affected and population density.The undersea earthquake of magnitude 7.0on the Richter scale that generated thewave in Nicaragua was categoricallysmaller than the magnitude 9.0 quakebelow the Indian Ocean.Nevertheless, the lesson learned inAsia and Nicaragua is a new impetus forthe development of a Central Americanwarning system.Mario Fernández, a seismologist withthe National Seismological Network at theUniversity of Costa Rica (UCR), spearheadsan international initiative to developa system that could extend from Mexico toChile, along both coasts.BEFORE the Nicaraguan tidal wavestruck, the threat of such disasters inCentral America was “little known andcompletely underestimated,” Fernándezwrote in an article published in 2001 in thegeologists’ monthly GEOS on tsunami riskanalysis on Costa Rican coasts.In the late 1990s, Fernández studiedthe risk tsunamis pose to the region withscientists throughout Central America inconjunction with the Guatemala-basedCenter for the Prevention of NaturalDisasters in Central America (CEPREDENAC,formerly based in Panama).At that time, with the help of a grantfrom the government of Norway, the UCRestablished the Central American SeismologicalCenter (CASC), which Fernándezdirects, as a component of the regional warningsystem (TT, Sep. 3, 1999). The systemwas scheduled for completion by 2000, butmoney ran out and the project has been infinancial limbo since.“WE can’t wait any more, we have toprepare ourselves,” Fernández told TheTico Times this week. “We aren’t talkingabout whether or not to set up a system, weare very focused on finishing it.”He and other Central American scientistswill present a proposal for a regionalsystem from Mexico to Panama at the worldsummit on natural disasters in Kobe, Japan,this month. To finish what was started in the1990s, the proposed project would cost$475,000, take five years, including theeducation of coastal communities, and leavethe door open to expand the informationsharing and warning network to Colombiaand as far south as Punta Arenas, Chile.Universities and research centers inevery country from Baja California,Mexico, to Panama, including Belize, underthe leadership of CASC, with the assistanceof CEPREDENAC, would install tsunamidetection equipment and monitor seismicactivity along the Pacific and Caribbeancoasts. The brain center would be tsunamiveteran Nicaragua, where the Institute ofTerritorial Surveys would collect informationfrom across the region and issue awarning if deemed necessary.“THE idea is to locate the earthquakeas quickly as possible, calculate its potentialto generate a tsunami, then warn people,”Fernández said. “We have to identifyzones in risk of tsunamis and educate peoplein the area so they know how torespond in an emergency.”Because population density and theamount of development on the coasts, especiallythe Pacific, are high, “We have toinvest more in prevention,” Fernández said.“If we can save even one life, its worth it,because you can’t put a price on a life.”The price has impeded the project sofar, but with the world’s attention rivetedon giant waves, the proposal to mitigatedamage in Central America in the event ofa disaster is timely.THOUGH no region-wide system is inplace, Costa Rica is not entirely defenselessbefore an imminent tidal wave.The U.S. National Oceanic andAtmospheric Association monitors stationsthroughout the Pacific, where mosttsunamis occur, and issues warningsthroughout the region, including to CostaRican authorities. Because the stationsdetect earthquakes so far from the coast,authorities would have as long as severalhours between the time they receive thewarning and the time the tsunami strikes.If such a warning arrived, the NationalEmergency Commission (CNE) wouldactivate its communication network, a conglomerateof agreements with radio andTV stations, the Red Cross, fire and policestations and 256 of its own officials on callin key areas throughout the country.Lidier Esquivel, head of prevention atthe commission, said its network encompasses90% of the country, and couldrespond to a tsunami warning if there wereample time to react.“IT would be very difficult – veryaudacious – to say that we are already prepared”for a tidal wave, Esquivel said.“If we have a warning with hours ofpreparation, there’s a lot we can do, but if wehave only a few minutes, it’s misleading tothink that we could warn everyone in time.“The success of this kind of (proposedwarning) system depends on the integrationof all the countries involved,” he said.“We can do very little here in Costa Rica ifwe don’t have access to information fromother countries.”In the meantime, Fernández recommendspeople use the “simplest, cheapest”warning system available – if you are onthe beach and you feel a big quake, head tohigh ground.How to Help Asian Tsunami Victims Callers have inundated the CostaRican Red Cross with offers to make donationsto the survivors of the great seawaves in southeast Asia, but the agencycannot deliver goods or money to areasaffected by the Dec. 26 disaster. Rather, itrecommends people make monetarydonations online.Likewise, though the U.S. governmenthas pledged an unprecedented $350 millionin relief aid, the U.S. Embassy in Costa Ricais not accepting donations for the victims.Among the Web sites for internationalnon-profit relief organizations acceptingglobal donations are the United NationsChildren’s Fund, www.unicef.org; and theInternational Federation of Red Cross andRed Crescent Societies in Switzerland,which made an international call for donationsDec. 29: donate.ifrc.org.Donations can also be made to theInternational Committee of the Red Cross:www.icrc.org, and the Foundation Burma,a U.S. based non-government organizationthat provides humanitarian aid torefugees and people in Myanmar,www.foundationburma.org.Doctors Without Borders announced ithas received all the funding it needs foremergency relief in the region, but otheraid groups are still in need.Officials in Costa Rica warn there aremany Web sites of questionable originclaiming to collect donations for relief aidthat should be avoided or investigatedbefore use.
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