Friday, January 14, 2005

Tsunami Story Started With Whimper, Ended With Bang

I know timing is everything in the news business, and these days anything more than 10 minutes old is "stale" due to the internet and the cable news shows. But I was getting ready to put some old newspapers out for recycling when the initial report of the Southeast Asian Tsunami caught my eye. It was in Sunday morning's paper on the day after Christmas, Dec. 26th. So the report was extremely preliminary. It appeared on page A-18. Headline: "9 Deaths, Big Waves Reported in Quake." Hoo boy. They had no idea how big the waves were. Or how much the death toll would rise. It WAS described as an "extremely powerful earthquake," and the number of deaths was based on a radio report that obviously had no idea the extent of the disaster. For some reason the geo-scientists couldn't decide if the magnitude of the earthquake was 6.5 or 8.1. Ultimately I think it ended up being close to 9, which is the strongest earthquake in 40 years. The contrast between this initial report and the eventual outcome was so staggering it is almost beyond belief. As was the event itself. History in the aftermath tends to look like a foregone conclusion. But it is a shock while it is happening. I read somewhere that the word Tsunami is now becoming enshrined as a word that can no longer be used in a casual sense. It is now a Serious Word, like Holocaust, or Ground Zero. But I don't like to see words retired from the langauge. I think people know the difference between a holocaust and The Holocaust. Between a tsunami and The Tsunami. I do know Cypress Gardens theme park in Florida named one of their new coasters The Triple Hurricane. But those hurricanes didn't cause nearly the amount of death and destruction that the tsunami did. But what about upcoming natural disasters? Will we have to strike "earthquake" from our vocabularies when the Big One hits California or the New Madrid fault in the central U.S.? Will we have to banish "volcano" when we get the next Pompeii-style eruption? Will "Iceberg" be frozen out of the language if a large one breaks off and rams South America? I don't know, but the natural disasters are coming so fast and furious lately that we are running out of words like "humungous" to try to describe them.

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