The Disaster Monopoly


A year and a half after the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, a pan-Asian warning system seems about as likely as, say, competent airport security stateside. So Sri Lankans have poured donations into DIY monitoring stations, using the Web and volunteers to watch for quakes:

In a small room up a rickety staircase in a tsunami-damaged building on Sri Lanka's south coast, Roshan Waduthantri sits glued to an earthquake warning Web site and monitors cable TV channels.

"Look, there has been a quake in the Scotia Sea," he said, monitoring U.S. Geological Survey Web site "We monitor all day and all night, and if there is a major earthquake, we tell the local community."

Waduthantri and seven residents take turns to monitor the airwaves, cable television channels and earthquake warning Web sites around the clock at their own Community Tsunami Early Warning Centre.

How do officials react to the exciting new world of distributed warning technology?

But the government does not want ad-hoc tsunami warning centres handing out advice to local communities.

"Only the Met Department is authorised to give tsunami warnings and evacuation orders. They cannot do it. It is illegal. That creates unnecessary panic," Darmaratne said.

Sure, surprise earthquakes have the capacity to kill hundreds of thousands of people. But one can at least be certain that the panic is necessary.