On day of catastrophe, scientist at Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sat looking at gauges and feeling 'like a schmuck'

White House aides defensive about Bush's slow reaction to disaster

NEW YORK, Jan. 2, 2005 -- A little after 7 p.m. Hawaii time on the day the tsunami killed more than 100,000 people in Asia, scientist Stuart Weinstein of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center near Honolulu sat looking at his seismic readings, watching TV, and, as he put it, "kind of feeling like a schmuck." Surrounded by technology, but lacking a warning system for the Indian Ocean, he had been reduced to typing in "tsunami" on Google to keep track of the death tolls. It was dawning on Weinstein that a disaster was happening, and there was nothing much to do about it, Newsweek reports in its January 10 cover story on the tsunami catastrophe (on newsstands Monday, January 3).

Charles McCreery, the center's director, says he's received some hate mail. "It's along the lines of, 'You moron, I got on the Web and I found phone numbers. You could have started to look up numbers of hotels on the beach to warn them.' ... In retrospect, it's partly because we just didn't realize the scale of the thing. In some ways, I'm going to feel a responsibility my whole life," McCreery tells Newsweek.

In a richly detailed narrative about the disaster and its aftermath, Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas, Hong Kong Bureau Chief George Wehrfritz and a team of correspondents share stories of terror, suffering and heroism from sites ranging from the Thai resort of Phuket, to India's east coast and Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. In Aceh, two Newsweek correspondents accompanied a relief team on an SUV ride from the airport. Just beyond the airport, soldiers were filling mass graves with wrapped corpses. As the car pressed further downtown, the driver had to slalom through the corpses on the road.

TV images of shocked vacationers running before surging floods on sea coasts from Thailand to Sri Lanka were followed by scenes of utter devastation in the remote outreaches of the Indonesian archipelago, Thomas and Wehrfritz write. Slowly, the rest of the world realized the magnitude of the disaster (in the Bush administration, perhaps a little too slowly). President Bush stayed out of sight, on vacation, for the first three days after the tsunami. "The president doesn't like the idea of empty gestures," a White House spokesman told Newsweek. White House aides were defensive about Bush's slow reaction, but officials made it clear that the United States will play a prominent role in a multi-billion dollar global relief effort.

Also in Newsweek's tsunami cover package:

* Newsweek presents a photo package of scenes of the disaster.

* After a cataclysm of Biblical proportions, people of all faiths ask, "Why us? Why here? Why now?" Contributing Editor Kenneth L. Woodward reports that along the coast of south India, Hindus tend to worship local deities that have the power to destroy as well as to create. Among coastline Buddhists in Thailand and Sri Lanka, there are many weather gods to both blame and propitiate with assorted prayers and offerings. These Buddhists' main concern will be to generate good merit that can be transferred to the deceased as a positive force in their next lifetime. And most Muslims believe that all that happens is Allah's doing, and even the destructive tsunami, therefore, must have some hidden, positive purpose. Many also believe that God is testing their faith on the individual level.

* The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, established in Hawaii in 1948, two years after a deadly tsunami hit the island, has issued warnings for all five of the significant ocean-spanning tsunamis over the last 56 years- and for 15 others that turned out to be false alarms. Because seismic data alone can't predict tsunamis, geologists rely on a network of gauges anchored near the shore to measure wave heights all around the Pacific Rim. Since 1996, these have been supplemented by deep ocean sensors, which sit on the ocean floor far from land. If these had been in place in the Indian Ocean last week, reports Senior Editor Jerry Adler, they could have given a definitive warning of the disaster about to descend on the Subcontinent.

* In the tsunami's aftermath, global health experts worry that the dangerous microbes already lurking in underdeveloped regions of Asia will spread exponentially, pushing the tsunami's death toll even higher, reports General Editor Claudia Kalb. In a vast effort to tackle the diseases head-on, the World Health Organization and other aid groups are sending huge emergency health kits-containing water-purification tablets, rehydration salts and antibiotics-to Asia. The next few weeks will tell whether they can ward off epidemics. The most likely dangers, Kalb reports, are: cholera, which can proliferate in countries where drinking water and hygiene are compromised even in the best of times; malaria and other "vector-borne" diseases to which the chance of exposure increases when stranded people spend day and night outdoors; and pneumonia, which can spread rapidly through close human contact, coughing and sneezing.

SOURCE Newsweek

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