Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
 
Sea-change: Tsunami & Blog

Keeping the important stuff uptop: If you are here looking for the list of Asian Tsunami relief funds, it's here, and an easy url to pass on is this: http://snipurl.com/tsunamihelp.

I was out most of today, and when I came home I was rather staggered to see the surge in hits from people looking for ways to help with the tsunami-relief, and the emails I've gotten from readers about it. It will take me a while to update the list linked above, but I wanted to say a couple of things first. First some housekeeping: the many updates on the blog caused a few errors, and the main page of the blog may not display correctly. Please be patient, try again, and let me know. Any given entry should still read correctly, as should the above link. Comments have disappeared, but they aren't lost, and I hope to bring them back soon. You can still email me with your thoughts in the mean time. A big thanks to Steve from Blogger for helping me work out these bugs! Secondly, at this point (especially now that the Google spiders have kicked in) my list is a little redundant, so I will start to focus more on secondary issues instead of merely repeating donation drives.

The Shakespearean phrase "sea-change" is often willfully tossed about to describe any manner of intense changes, and the grim pun on this horrific story is almost irresistable, especially to journalists who are known for latching onto such wordplay. In this case the sea itself changed, and caused hideous and awesome change in its wake. I think the phrase has an even deeper meaning though, this time.

Please click on the timestamp Permalink below to read this whole entry.


On the phone this evening, my friend Rick in Manhattan told me that this globally distant natural disaster felt different to him somehow--that despite not even watching that much TV about it, he felt much more connected to it, more informed about it, more affected about it than, say the last one. This is a hard feeling to quantify and a hard phenomena to prove, even by loose journalistic standards, but I somehow think he might be onto something. I got whipped into blogging action by reading one of Matthew Yglesias's posts on it, and in that same post he wrote, "At any rate, this struck me as approximately the Worst Thing Ever, but looking at this list of horrors, including a tsunami in Bangladesh in just 1991 that killed 138,000 people, I see that things have actually been much, much worse." Yglesias is younger than even me, but he's hardly a naif about global events. The fact that local students set up an excellent blog about the disaster is weirdly both predictable and amazing. The global reaction is also an indicator of how strongly this part of the world is now tied up with the fortunes of Europe and the United States. Today's New York Times has articles on the thousands of missing tourists and the anxiety of immigrant families in the United States with family in the devastated countries. Maybe this time it really is different.

Let us take a look again at Ariel's deceitful speech in The Tempest which gave rise to the phrase:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Dictionaries love to quarrel about the fact that Shakespeare probably only meant "change from the sea" and not the cliched usage we have of "great change," but I believe in giving descriptive definitions their due, and Shakespeare's very stature makes him more open to appropriation. It is an astonishing verse, a false memorial, but a striking one. It is a rare line of poetry that simultaneously notes the horror of death and the potential creation of something good from that horror. Pearls, you will recall, are reactions to the pain caused an oyster by sand.

My admittedly ludicrously optimistic hope is that this really is such a case. In the comments you can't see right now my friend Scott, a disaster preparation expert, wrote: I see three issues: how to respond to this disaster, how to deal with warning issues, and how to prepare yourself and your family. That last part we can help with at CARD. The middle part needs a lot of work, but the good news is that I bet it will happen. Disasters get prepared for after they happen, so people will now start planning for the next one. Prbably the WCDR in Kobe will be the first place something may happen. Middle-tech geek infrastructure as you described is probably the answer. (Emphases mine.) This Reuters article by Robert Evans really hits the nail on the head in the first two grafs: Governments around the world must work together to build early warning systems that can cut death tolls from natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 40,000, United Nations experts say. And investment in broad education programmes is also vital so that ordinary people -- especially in coastal areas where catastrophe often hits hardest -- know what to do when alerted that calamity is on the way, they warn.

Preparation, warning, rapid & efficient response. It's a pretty simple and obvious formula. The problems are often logistics and the unpooled nature of most relevant resources. And I wonder if, perhaps, possibly, hopefully, maybe, technology could actually change that. Only this last November, the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (which coordinates the upcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction that Scott and Robert Evans above talk about) launched a new website: Platform for the Promotion of Early Warning. Under Innovations they write, "Developing countries often have the greatest need for early warning systems, but at the same time the least capacity to implement them. In addition, advanced technologies are sometimes unsustainable in developing country economies. New initiatives and targeted research are needed to develop affordable tailored solutions for those in need." This Red Herring article which rather randomly mentioned me (thanks guys!), also linked to The Emergency Email & Wireless Network, which lets you sign up to be emailed, called, or paged with emergency alerts. The kinds of alerts they offer seem a little incomplete, but the idea is out there and being implemented. More broadly, people can join hands virtually and send resources from unaffected areas to the affected areas. Let's put it this way---its not inconceivable that one day a disaster in the developed world might leave the currently ravaged area safe and sound. If we help them get online and truly connected to us now, then if that day comes, they are much more likeley to easily and enthusiastically help us out. The metamorphosis of WiFi connections to heartful connections is a sea-change worth pursuing.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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