'Tsunami: the world responds' for Jan. 4

Guest: Bob Orringer, Terri Orringer, Samantha Orringer, Lindsay Orringer, Debra Orringer, Michael Dobbs, Charles McCreery, Rudy Von Bernuth

ANNOUNCER:  The is an MSNBC special report.


GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We‘re here to ask our fellow citizens to join a broad humanitarian relief effort.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There is significant capacity in those ships to produce fresh water and significant capacity to store fresh water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I suppose what has most gotten to me is the number of children who‘ve lost parents.


When it comes to dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, the United States has the best record in the world, not the worst.



Tonight, as the race against death and disease goes on across Southeast Asia, a look at one of the most devastated regions and why getting health help in parts of Sri Lanka may be next to impossible.  Then, exclusive, one American family‘s incredible tale of survival in the midst of total chaos.  And “Washington Post” reporter Michael Dobbs shares his own family‘s images of paradise and hell.  Plus, detecting the warning signs of imminent  disaster.  Can something of this magnitude be prevented?  And a look at the tragic plight of the tsunami‘s youngest victims.  What could be done to help this lost generation?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I suppose what has most gotten to me is the number of children who‘ve lost parents.


ANNOUNCER:  From studio 3K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  And good evening, everybody.  and welcome to this MSNBC special report.  Quite a bit to cover tonight, including some incredible stories of survival.  But first, MSNBC‘s Milissa Rehberger has the latest headlines from tsunami-ravaged South Asia.

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC ANCHOR:Good evening.  With the death toll from the killer tsunamis at about 140,000 now, relief workers are desperate to prevent more death now from disease and starvation.  The U.N. says extraordinary progress is being made, but ruined roads, floods and heavy rain are now slowing the delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of people, and U.N. relief officials say some of them are dying while they wait.

The relief effort on the hard-hit island of Sumatra was hampered today when the main airport closed down after a cargo plane hit a herd of cows.  And as relief workers reach those more remote areas, they‘re finding an overwhelming level of devastation, with entire villages obliterated.  There are reports that Indonesia‘s government is concerned that rebuilding in some areas may be impossible and that many survivors may have to be permanently relocated.

And as more survivors are helicoptered out of remote areas, hospitals are becoming overcrowded.  Some of the injured are being left outside on stretchers on the sidewalks.

Secretary of state Colin Powell and Florida governor Jeb Bush got a firsthand look today at the damage in Phuket, Thailand.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE:  This is not just a one-time humanitarian relief effort or rescue effort.  This has to be a long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation effort to rebuild homes and to rebuild families and rebuild lives.


REHBERGER:  On Thursday, Powell will join world leaders at a summit in Indonesia to coordinate global relief efforts and talk about building a much-needed tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean.

And today, disturbing reports that some child victims may face a new threat.  Swedish police are investigating the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy from a Thai hospital, where he was last seen after surviving a tsunami.  ITN‘s Shiulie Ghosh has that story.


SHIULIE GHOSH, ITN (voice-over):  When the waves struck the coast of Thailand nine days ago, they not only ripped away lives but tore thousands of families apart—parents from children, brother from sister.  Among the survivors were youngsters left injured, orphaned, traumatized and alone.  Now Thai authorities are investigating the dreadful possibility that when some of these victims needed help the most, they may have fallen prey to child traffickers.

The father of this boy, 12-year-old Christian Walker, is desperately trying to discover if his son was one of those victims.  Christian was on holiday in Khao Lak with his mother, now presumed dead, and his brother and sister, who were found safe in Phuket.  But Christian is missing.  His father now believes he was abducted.  At home in Sweden today, he spoke of his fears for Christian‘s safety.

DANIEL WALKER, FATHER OF MISSING CHILD (through translator):  When you receive this kind of information, you‘re pulled into a very strange world, in some way.  And there is hope, an unpleasant hope, but at the same time, there is fear, and that doesn‘t feel good.

GHOSH:  Doctors at this hospital have confirmed they treated Christian for minor injuries the day after the tsunami, but they say he left the hospital with a dark-haired European man and he hasn‘t been heard of since.  Swedish police are now treating Christian‘s disappearance as a possible kidnapping.

Aid agencies say children are particularly vulnerable to child snatchers in the chaotic aftermath of disasters.  They‘ve reported cases of local children being abducted by ruthless child sex traders, but this is the first time a Western child has been taken.

It‘s a nightmare for any parent.  Christian‘s family are now doing all they can to trace him with the help of the Thai authorities.


REHBERGER:  That was ITN‘s Shiulie Ghosh reporting.

Sri Lanka has been divided by civil war for years.  The tsunami has killed at least 30,000 people there, and now old hostilities are being put aside as the living help one another.  NBC‘s Ann Curry has more.


ANN CURRY, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The Sri Lankan air force flew us to the hard-hit eastern coast, the nation‘s most populated region and most difficult to reach.  This is rebel territory controlled by the Tamil Tigers.  The military is allowed to land here in Betaglo (ph) for the first time in 20 years because of the disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  All of this is a high-security area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And these are terrorist areas.

CURRY (on camera):  This is a terrorist area?


CURRY:  For the Tamil Tigers?

(voice-over):  Armed, our military escort tours the devastation.  The tsunami tore apart concrete, reducing this Hindu temple, home after home and lives to shambles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Seven hundred and seventy-four.

CURRY (on camera):  So you have 774 people in this refugee camp, and this is one of 13 just in this area?


CURRY (voice-over):  So many refugees crowd this old mission, they‘ve spilled into hallways, many in mourning.  This woman suffers a mother‘s guilt for choosing to grab her youngest children first.  Her sister-in-law watched the 13-year-old pulled away to her death.  This woman, who lost her 2-year-old son, is inconsolable.

(on camera):  I‘m so sorry!

(voice-over):  So far, the refugees have survived on Sri Lankan aid and on the rare cooperation between the Tamil rebels organization and the military.  But outside aid is now trickling in, clean drinking water from action fans (ph) filling tanks donated by Save the Children.  These Americans arrived just today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, I think it‘s quite apparent how much attention they‘ve gotten.  No. 1, it took us 10 hours to get here.  And there were very few other vehicles on the road.  And it‘s apparent, once being here, that there isn‘t much presence of anything here.

CURRY:  The face of this disaster is desperate, but there is hope that the aid pledged by the world will soon reach them.  Until it does, they wait.


REHBERGER:  That was NBC‘s Ann Curry reporting from the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.

Now back to Deborah Norville and more of this MSNBC special “Tsunami:

The World Responds.”

NORVILLE:  Thanks, Milissa.

And joining me now from Phuket, Thailand, is NBC News‘s Charles Sabine.  Charles, you know that Secretary of State Powell is there.  There‘ll be a big meeting in Jakarta coming up.  What, realistically, are people expecting to come from this meeting, once it finally does take place day after tomorrow?

CHARLES SABINE, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I think that the Thai people are interested in two specific things coming out of both the visit here of the secretary of state and what he may be able to do there.  The first is that they—the main issue here is one of identification of bodies, Deborah.  It‘s going to be sometime, if ever, when all the 4,000 missing people here, at least half of those tourists, are ever either discovered—that is, their bodies, many of them, may have gone out to sea, or the bodies that have been discovered, they are having to be identified.  They‘re unrecognizable.  There‘s a lengthy DNA process that‘s going on with forensic scientists from 19 different countries.

What the Thai authorities have said when they spoke to the secretary of state yesterday, when he visited here, was that they need help in that.  And he said he‘s going to provide perhaps assistance from the scientific community in the United States with that.

The other thing that the Thais want to talk about is an early warning system for tsunamis in the future.  They say there‘s nothing much we can do, really, now about what has happened here.  This has been a disaster.  It‘s going to take years for Thailand to get on its feet.  How can we prevent this happening again?  The Thai prime minister has already said he wants a system in place here within the next six months.  And he says that with American help, that could become an expanded system, a regional system that could work for the whole of Southeast Asia.

So those are the issues that are most concerning the Thai people with this meeting coming up—Deborah.

NORVILLE:  When you‘ve been out and about amongst some of the Thai people, what has their reaction been to the fact that there is not in the Indian Ocean a similar kind of tsunami warning system as exists in the Pacific Ocean?

SABINE:  Well, they‘re very angry about if.  And they‘re also extremely angry because there‘s been a rumor going on around here that quite a senior scientist working with the government here did warn them after that earthquake hit, before the tsunami hit here.  He says that he warned the government.  He was trying to get through on telephones to the senior people.  The rumors are that they knew about this and that they did not use that information because they didn‘t want to cause panic.

Now, those are just rumors, I must say.  But you can imagine, these are the kind of rumors that make the people here very angry.  They know that it really would be, apparently, in scientific terms, quite simple to put such a system in, and the scientists say, who say that such a system can be put in place, say that it would have saved thousands of lives had it been put in place nine days ago.

NORVILLE:  We know the head of the meteorological department was fired today because of the delay in warning.  We also know, though, that there are tourists.  We‘ve seen the pictures of people on the beaches enjoying the surf and the sun, as people were doing before the tsunami.  And for those of us who aren‘t there, it‘s hard to understand how someone could be on the beach where just days before, people lost their lives.

SABINE:  It is kind of surprising, isn‘t it.  Yes.  I mean, obviously, the vast majority of the tourists have left here.  There are some who, tragically, are still here, poring over lists at city hall here in Phuket, lists of the dead and the injured and the missing.  So that is a very tragic reason for them still to be here.

But amazingly, there are some people who have decided to carry on with their vacation here.  They are a minority, but they are here.  Of course, the Thai authorities and the Thai managers of the hotels, like the one I‘m standing at here, are, of course, delighted by that.  They desperately need this money.  They‘re very, very concerned about the future.

But it is kind of surprising, I think, to some of us that people would continue to stay on these beaches that have been the scene of such tragedy.  The setting behind me, as idyllic as it may look, was the scene of hundreds of deaths just 10 days ago.  And now there are people, Westerners, some of them, who are going onto that beach, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  And I understand, actually, there in Phuket, about 90 percent of the hotels are actually in pretty good shape.

SABINE:  Yes.  The only ones that were damaged—and they were very, very severely damaged—are the ones that, of course, were right down on the water.


SABINE:  To enormous effect, of course.  They were hit—anyone who was in them was either killed or injured, actually.  So the pictures that we saw, of course, do paint a slightly different picture to the one that the Thai authorities would like to paint.  They say, Well, look, 75 percent of the hotels around Thailand, if not more, are in perfectly good condition.  You know, Come back in the future.  I think they realize that people are maybe not going to come back in a matter of weeks...

NORVILLE:  And we know how important...


SABINE:  ... the future.  Today—let me show...

NORVILLE:  And we know how...

SABINE:  Indeed, but...


SABINE:  ... but let me show you today‘s...

NORVILLE:  ... important tourism is there.

SABINE:  Yes.  This is “The Nation” from today, the main newspaper in Thailand, their business section—“Full recovery could take many years.”  This is their concern.


SABINE:  This is a country that—whose life blood is tourism.  It lives for that tourism.  The tourism is on the beaches.  It‘s got to reconstruct it.  And the Thai prime minister says that has got to be priority here in the coming years, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  All right.  Charles Sabine in Phuket, Thailand, thank you for being with us.

When we come back, an American family‘s dream vacation becomes terrifying when they find themselves literally holding on for dear life.  Their story when we come back.


NORVILLE:  Now an amazing story of survival.  A family from New Jersey on a long-awaited vacation in paradise, but in just minutes, everything changed.  The Orringer family says they‘re lucky to be alive and to be able to share their story.  I‘m joined tonight by Bob and Terri Orringer and their three daughters, 16-year-old Samantha, 19-year-old Lindsay and 21-year-old Debra.

And Bob, I‘ll start with you first.  What happened?  You thought this was the dream vacation.  What happened the day after Christmas?

BOB ORRINGER, SURVIVED TSUNAMI:  Well, it was a dream vacation.  We were having a beautiful time.  The weather was gorgeous.  Sunday morning at about 8:00 in the morning, we woke up with some vibration in the room.  And I noticed the television was shaking.  And I assumed we were having a tremor, but I had never felt a tremor before.

And when we went to breakfast, I asked the people, Was that a tremor I experienced?  And nobody—nobody understood what I was saying.  So then we went out to the beach.  And we were actually sitting around the pool.  And it was beautiful.  It was probably 90 degrees, sunny, no wind.  And all of a sudden, we saw a wave come way up onto shore, knocked over a lot of the umbrellas that were on the beach.


BOB ORRINGER:  We were still on the pool level, which was maybe about four or five feet above the shore level.  It‘s interesting.  We also noticed some scuba divers that washed up on water and were confused as to how they got there, got to the shore.

Then there was a second wave.  And this came up a little bit higher.  This got us all wet.  It was maybe about a foot above ground level, where we were.  So we decided at that point that it‘d be smart to go in.

NORVILLE:  But truth be told, I understand it was the young lady in the red top behind you, Samantha, who was really the one who sounded the family alarm.  You actually recognized that that was a tsunami?

SAMANTHA ORRINGER, SURVIVED TSUNAMI:  Well, I always think the worst of everything, so I didn‘t even—whether it was a tsunami or not, I kept telling them to come inside, but no one would listen to me.

NORVILLE:  You‘re sort of the Chicken Little of the family, I gather?


NORVILLE:  The sky is always falling?


NORVILLE:  What‘d you tell your family?

SAMANTHA ORRINGER:  Well, I was standing in the doorway, watching them outside by the pool because I ran in, and I was standing in the doorway of the hotel.  And I was, like, You need to come inside.  And they were just laughing at me.  And they‘re, like, You‘re being ridiculous.  You‘re fine.  And so I was—I was, like, I‘m in the hotel.  I‘m safe.  You guys should come in here.  And no one would listen to me.  So when the wave actually came, I ran inside and I ran up the stairs.  So I was fine.

NORVILLE:  But Terri, you were not fine.  I gather that you actually were caught up in the water in a pretty scary situation.

TERRI ORRINGER, SURVIVED TSUNAMI:  Yes.  Well, I was out—I was watching the wave come up to the top.  And I got thrown up to the top of the—to a tree, to a palm tree.  And I...

NORVILLE:  By the water?

TERRI ORRINGER:  By the water, yes.  And I was holding on for dear life.  I kind of lost my footing, but there was another gentleman who was also stuck up in the tree.  He stuck out his arm and he grabbed me.  And I was up at the top of the tree.

NORVILLE:  And what happened to the man who was up in the tree with you?

TERRI ORRINGER:  You know what?  I don‘t know.  It‘s, like, you don‘t realize what‘s happening to you at the time.  And I know I got down.  I think he got down, also, though.  He was OK.

NORVILLE:  And where was the rest of the family at that moment?

TERRI ORRINGER:  Well, I was up in the tree.  And I was watching—

Bob was holding onto a railing, and he got pushed through a glass door, a sliding glass door, because the railing gave way.  And Debra was holding onto a railing, and she got pushed through a glass—the glass also, and some glass fell on her shoulder and she got a big gash in her shoulder but couldn‘t get stitches.  And of course, Sam was inside, yelling for us.  And Lindsay was floating away.  And I was yelling to Lindsay, you know, Somebody come get Lindsay.  Get Lindsay.  Because she was floating away.

NORVILLE:  And Lindsay, what was happening to you right then?  You saw your mom up in the tree.  Your dad‘s hanging on the railing.  And you‘re, I‘m sure, trying like mad to grab anything to secure yourself.

LINDSAY ORRINGER, SURVIVED TSUNAMI:  Well, I heard my parents calling me.  But I‘d always been told that when there‘s a large current, just swim with the current until you‘re able to steady yourself, as opposed to swimming against the current, where you might eventually just run out of strength.  So I heard my parents calling to me, but I just figured I‘d swim with the current and eventually just meet them in the front of the hotel, which seemed like a rational idea until I eventually realized after the fact that that‘s how the majority of people were taken out to sea...


LINDSAY ORRINGER:  ... that they didn‘t realize that the undertow was just so strong and that they were just going to go out to the middle of the ocean.

NORVILLE:  And eventually, you all—the water receded, and you ended up kind of on the hill above.  And Debra, that‘s where I want you to sort of take over because you all started actually using the videocamera and shooting.  And what was it like at that moment?  And how soon after that first wave was this video taken?

DEBRA ORRINGER, SURVIVED TSUNAMI:  It was taken maybe 10 minutes after.  We all (UNINTELLIGIBLE) video when they evacuated our hotel.  That was taken within five hours.  But it wasn‘t—we didn‘t think it was a big deal, at that point.  Even when we were evacuated, we were thinking, This is kind ridiculous.  There‘s no reason for this.  But apparently, there was.

NORVILLE:  And you thought it was a pretty isolated thing?  You had no idea what was going elsewhere at the resort island?

DEBRA ORRINGER:  We had no idea.  If you look at the video, it‘s beautiful out.  Like, there was no indication that there was disaster everywhere around us.

NORVILLE:  And Terri, I understand that newspaper you‘ve got in your lap was there for a reason.  You didn‘t think anybody believed you when you lost a few things.

TERRI ORRINGER:  Well, that‘s right.  We lost some of our belongings on the beach, and so we kept this newspaper.  It‘s “The Bangkok Post”—

“Killer waves wreak havoc.”  And we kept this as—to show our insurance company that—when we lost all of our things and we were going put in a claim, that something actually did happen...


TERRI ORRINGER:  ... because we didn‘t think they would believe that -

·         that anything happened.  We didn‘t think they would know about it.

NORVILLE:  Bob, I know you‘re a physician, and obviously, you know, a physician‘s first duty is to render assistance when needed.  You weren‘t aware how bad the destruction and devastation for individuals was.

BOB ORRINGER:  No.  We were in our own little microcosm of just this -

·         the hotel and the surrounding area.  And there were a few people that had some minor cuts.  I mean, I had some minor cuts.  Actually, Debra had one of the deeper cuts that really required stitches, but there was no way to suture her.  So using some Band-Aids, we tried to make something that would hold the wound together.

But most of the injuries were minor, and we had no idea that there were other areas where the injuries were more severe and there was actually loss of life.  We had our own little world there, with no communication to the outside world.

NORVILLE:  When you look at the full picture now, as you were able to do when you got home and saw the television coverage, what do you think about the close call that you and the other guests that were there with you had?

BOB ORRINGER:  Well, it‘s interesting.  We didn‘t appreciate it at the time.  We didn‘t appreciate the severity of the storm or the fact that we could have lost our lives.  As we left the airport, that‘s the first time we actually saw a television and we saw the severity and the magnitude of the tsunami, we realized that we really could have lost our lives.  And then we were most concerned about our families.

NORVILLE:  Yes.  Making sure they knew that you were OK.  And Terri, I know that necklace around your neck probably will stay there for a very long time.  Explain that to us.

TERRI ORRINGER:  Yes.  This is a—it‘s a little necklace that, after

we left Phuket and we were on our way to Chang My (ph), which is the next -

·         our next destination, we found—Bob found this little pendant for me. 

It‘s jade, and it has some Chinese writing in it.  And it says, For good luck.  You can see it.  It says it‘s for good luck.  And when I came home, I put it on and I haven‘t taken it off since we‘ve been home.

NORVILLE:  I think we can all understand why.  Bob, Terri, Samantha, Lindsay and Debra Orringer, thank you very much, and congratulations on a safe return home.  We‘re glad for you.

BOB ORRINGER:  Thank you very much.


NORVILLE:  When we come back, another amazing story.  A “Washington Post” reporter on vacation with his family in Sri Lanka, then the tsunami hit.  His incredible story when we come back.



NORVILLE:  Michael Dobbs was one of many Americans vacationing in South Asia last week when the tsunami hit.  He and his family were spending their holiday on a small island off the coast of Sri Lanka.  Mr. Dobbs is a reporter for “The Washington Post” newspaper, and he joins us tonight.  We thank you.

It was supposed to be just a nice vacation with family, relatives, even your 80-year-old mother.  When did things change?

MICHAEL DOBBS, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, the day after Christmas.

We‘d had a wonderful Christmas dinner.  And the next day, we woke up.  It was a beautiful day, cloudless sky, not a wave in the sea.  We decided to go swimming.  My brother has a little—tiny little island just off the southern-most tip of Sri Lanka. 

And I and he were swimming around the island and suddenly he started calling to me.  He was a little behind me and saying, come back.  Come back.  There‘s something very wrong with the sea. 

And I couldn‘t see what it—understand what it was.  But then the water started to rise very, very rapidly, about 30 feet in the space of less than two minutes.  And, at the same time, I and my brother were pushed inland.  We ended up on a little fishing boat, a catamaran.  And that‘s probably what saved us from being pushed right inland along with many other people. 

NORVILLE:  This doesn‘t sound like the kind of wave we‘ve seen the home videos of, though.  It sounds like it was more of a swell that carried you, rather than some crashing waves. 

DOBBS:  I think people, different people who were in different places experienced it in different ways.  For me, it wasn‘t a crashing, a huge wave, the popular image of tsunamis.  It was a rising swell, as you put it. 

And probably people who were on land, they had a different experience. 

For them, the water crashed over the sea barriers. 

NORVILLE:  Did you have any sense that you were in danger at the time? 

DOBBS:  It was worrying, particularly after the water started to recede, to go out of the bay, because, at that point, I‘d let go of the fishing boat and I was being pushed out to sea at one point, but I managed to grab hold of another boat and then eventually the water rushed passed me. 

And, by that time, the bay was almost bone-dry, which was almost as weird a sight as the original tsunami. 

NORVILLE:  So you could have walked back to the little island that your brother had? 

DOBBS:  We did.  We pretty much walked back to the island. 

NORVILLE:  But if there were 30-foot swells that came, the island must have been decimated.

DOBBS:  Well, the island is about 60-foot high. 

So, the water came up halfway up the island.  So, it was actually—the top of the island, where the house is, was one of the safest places to be.  My children slept through the entire tsunami and only woke up as we were walking back to the island. 

NORVILLE:  So, I want to throw those pictures that we just saw up.  It looked like railing or something that was submerged under water.  Can you tell me what I‘m looking at here?  I‘m guessing this is a patio or something.

DOBBS:  Yes.  That‘s the entryway to my brother‘s island. 

The pier, which—this is one of the many waves that followed the original tsunami.  And, as you see, that‘s pretty much submerged the entryway.  And part of the entryway, we found about half-a-mile down the beach. 

NORVILLE:  I know you later went back to mainland, to Galle, the city there in Sri Lanka, and took some pictures of the devastation, which was quite a bit different than what had happened to your brother‘s tiny island. 

DOBBS:  That‘s right.  Galle was very badly affected.  That‘s me at the bus station in Galle.  It‘s an old 17th century Dutch fortress.  And the water came around both sides of the fortress and hit the bus station, putting—pushing the buses all over the place.  At least 200 people were killed there.  They were trapped in their buses and hit by shards of glass. 

NORVILLE:  Did your kids see this? 

DOBBS:  I—actually, we spent the night in Galle, two nights in Galle.  And I did take them down to the bus station.  I thought they should see that.  They go to school here in Washington.  I thought that it was worth them seeing the kind of disasters that affect other people. 


DOBBS:  And I think it made them realize how fortunate they are to live in the United States. 

NORVILLE:  You wrote a beautiful piece for the paper.  In it, you said, in two weeks‘ time, you‘ve seen both paradise and hell.  Are you able to make any sense of it, Mr. Dobbs? 

DOBBS:  I think it‘s very—we could have been killed.  We were very fortunate.  I‘ve been covering wars and natural disasters and earthquakes for 30 years.  This is the first time I‘ve actually been caught up in one.  So we just feel very happy to be back here. 

NORVILLE:  It‘s very different when you do become a part of the story. 

We‘re glad it ended well for you and your family. 

Michael Dobbs, thanks so much. 

DOBBS:  Thank you. 

NORVILLE:  When we come back, when that earthquake struck at sea, there were still many hours to go before that tsunami would reach shore in some areas.  So why did no one warn millions of the impending doom?  What went wrong?  Could it happen again? 

We‘ll be back. 


NORVILLE:  A warning system could have saved many of those killed in South Asia.  So, what went wrong and could it happen again? 

More on that in a moment. 


NORVILLE:  Could the killer tsunami that hit South Asia have been predicted?  And could thousands of lives have been saved?  That haunting question is being asked over and over.  And one man who might have been able to warn people today lost his job. 

Thailand‘s top weather forecaster has been fired for failing to alert his country that a dangerous tsunami was possible.  The Thai Meteorology Department knew about the powerful earthquake that had hit off the coast of Indonesia, but officials didn‘t want to needlessly alarm tourists.  Tourism, as you know, is a major part of the Thai economy. 

Joining me tonight to discuss how an official warning system could have saved lives is Dr. Charles McCreery.  He is the director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. 

And, Dr. McCreery, thanks for being with us. 

First off, if the Indian Ocean had had the kind of warning system that exists in the Pacific Ocean, how many of these nearly 140,000 deaths might have been prevented? 

CHARLES MCCREERY, DIRECTOR, PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER:  Well, it‘s probably impossible to say how many could have been prevented, but it certainly would have been a large number. 

A warning system like we have in the Pacific would probably have been able to reach those people with some kind of a warning message in time before the wave arrived, at least in Sri Lanka and India and Thailand.  It would have been too late to reach people in Indonesia.  But with the warning system, you have—you not only have a warning center like we have here in Hawaii, but you also have the rapid communications to the various agencies that are going to be responsible in those countries. 


NORVILLE:  Let‘s talk about how the system works. 


NORVILLE:  First off, how it‘s physically set up.  You‘ve actually got buoys that are located in key spots around the Pacific Ocean. 

MCCREERY:  Well, not only buoys.  We have about 100 coastal gauges around the Pacific.  And then we do have a number of deep ocean gauges that give us the most accurate measurement of the tsunami. 

NORVILLE:  And that satellite relays that to your offices there in Hawaii.  And once you get the data, what do you do with it? 

MCCREERY:  Well, these data are used to—essentially in combination with numerical models to make some kind of a forecast of how large the tsunami impacts are going to be on various shorelines. 

This—actually, this system is still in development in the Pacific.  But it‘s clear from a test we had a couple of years ago from an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands that this method worked well.  And so a lot of progress is being made on broadening this system to cover all of the source regions in the Pacific and making the numerical models apply to all the coastlines at risk. 

NORVILLE:  And, in fact, even though you don‘t cover the Indian Ocean, your folks knew within 15 minutes of the earthquake happening that it had happened.  You just about had the magnitude right.  But you didn‘t know what to do with the information.  It must have been very frustrating.

MCCREERY:  Well, it was frustrating in the sense that there wasn‘t a system set up before the earthquake to warn the Indian Ocean.  We couldn‘t invent a system after the earthquake. 

And so even though we had the seismic information, all the other pieces of the warning system were completely missing.  And we basically only knew what all the other geophysical observatories around the world knew, that a large earthquake had occurred in the Indian Ocean, but all the other pieces were missing. 

NORVILLE:  And I want to throw up a map that reminds us where the earthquake happened, which was just off the coast of Indonesia and then look at how, from the epicenter, the earthquake wave, the tsunami, emanated out.  It was an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes before that wave hit Sri Lanka, for instance; 30,000 people are dead there.  Those people could have easily been warned, could they not? 

MCCREERY:  Yes, that‘s true.  With a warning system, that‘s—it‘s still a challenge for a warning system to get word down to all the people along the coastline in that amount of time. 

But with a properly-designed warning system and the programs of public

education, so that persons who are at the coastline know what to do with

that information and will take action immediately, instead of, for example

·         in some cases, if the public isn‘t educated and they get a tsunami warning, they may go to the beach to see what is going on. 

NORVILLE:  Right. 

MCCREERY:  So it‘s another part that has to be done, is public education. 

NORVILLE:  Why has this part of the Asia region been so reluctant to implement some kind of warning system? 

MCCREERY:  Well, if you look at the historical record, we haven‘t had anything like this in the Indian Ocean probably going back at least 500 years. 


NORVILLE:  Isn‘t that all the more reason to worry?  Aren‘t you due if it had been 500 years? 

MCCREERY:  Well, yes and no. 

Certainly, with what we know about earthquakes, those stresses can build up over those kinds of time periods.  And so, if you knew in advance that there were areas where you could conceivably have those kinds of events, then maybe that is the signal you need to start designing or taking the right precautions. 


NORVILLE:  Which is why a lot of people look at the map here and see that there is the fault line that‘s just about, what, 50 miles off the coast of Washington state and you look at that and you think, hmm, do we need to worry in this country?  How likely is the risk here? 

MCCREERY:  Well, that is the Cascadia subduction zone.  And that‘s an area that has had increasing concern in recent years.  There‘s a lot of evidence, not historical evidence, but evidence collected by scientists from sediments, from tree rings that indicate large earthquakes do happen in that area, great earthquakes, ones that are equivalent to this one in Indonesia. 


NORVILLE:  Well, real quick, because we just have a couple of seconds.  Do you predict one happening not in our lifetime or the next lifetime, but in maybe the next three lifetimes in that area? 

MCCREERY:  Well, we can‘t predict these things yet.  The science of predicting earthquakes is still—there‘s still a lot of uncertainty.  So, I‘d say we‘d just have to continue to be prepared and—because nature can do these great things. 

NORVILLE:  It is unpredictable. 

Charles McCreery from the Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, thank you for being with us. 

MCCREERY:  Thank you, Deborah. 

NORVILLE:  When we come back, the tsunamis have left thousands of children at risk from disease, from hunger, from homelessness.  The number of orphaned children is staggering.  And now there are grave concerns that many of those children could be exploited in the aftermath by sexual predators. 

When we come back, what one organization is trying to do to help the littlest victims.


NORVILLE:  UNICEF is estimating that one-third of the victims of the tsunami are children, that more than 1.5 million kids are dealing with the devastating loss of their loved ones, their friends, their homes. 

In addition, countless children, many of them now orphans, are at risk of disease, of starvation, lack of clean water and perhaps being further victimized by adults. 

Rudy Von Bernuth is vice president and managing director of emergencies and crises for Save the Children, a nonprofit child assistance organization that operates around the world and particularly in this area. 

What struck you, sir, in this first week after this tragedy as far as the kids go? 

RUDY VON BERNUTH, SAVE THE CHILDREN:  Well, of course, the plight of the children is absolutely terrible.  They were the most vulnerable, as you pointed out, because they were small. 

The trauma that they suffer as they lose their families, as they are torn away from their homes, as everything that they‘re comfortable with is taken away from them is just overwhelming.  In one community, we‘ve identified—Banda—Aceh Besar, we‘ve identified 700 children who are unaccompanied, who either have been separated from their families or have lost their families completely. 

NORVILLE:  And what do you do with 700 kids?  How do you have enough staff to even make sure they‘ve got beds or pallets to sleep on, food to eat and even who they are? 

VON BERNUTH:  It‘s not easy.  We do have protection officers who are working in the community and with the communities. 

I think the communities are absolutely central to the solution for these children.  The first thing we do is, we register the children.  We try to get all the data that they can remember about what their own name is, who their family members are, what village they were from, what town they were from, friends, relatives, anything they can give us that allows us to establish a file, so we know who they are and so that, hopefully, eventually, we‘ll be able to reunite them either with members of their own family or at least with their communities. 

NORVILLE:  This is one community where the kids have gotten into your sphere of influence. 

VON BERNUTH:  That‘s correct. 

NORVILLE:  There are thousands and thousands of children who aren‘t under the protection of any kind of agency.  We‘re hearing terrifying reports of child predators, of kids being taken out of hospitals for heaven knows what kind of fate. 

VON BERNUTH:  It‘s very scary. 

And I think what we have to hope is that we could reach as many communities of these as possible and start working with the communities.  The communities themselves are probably the strongest way to ensure the safety of the kids.  Family structure is very strong in these countries.  And members of the extended community will take steps to try to protect the children. 

NORVILLE:  And you don‘t come in a bunch outsiders.  Your organization primarily is on the ground already.  These are local people who are affiliated and members of Save the Children.

VON BERNUTH:  We‘ve been working in Aceh for 20 years.  We‘ve been working in Sri Lanka for an equally long period. 

In fact, one of the most unique factors of this emergency for me was that some of our own staff died.  We had two staff who—out of 24 -- who were in Banda Aceh at the time of the event that died.  We had one doctor who works for us who, though he and his wife survived, lost 21 relatives.


VON BERNUTH:  So the impact on our own staff has been tremendous. 

But, as you say, we have been working in the communities for a long time. 

NORVILLE:  The outpouring has been incredible worldwide.  The amount of dollars that just regular folks are giving is amazing. 

And yet today Doctors Without Borders said, stop, no more money.  Please don‘t send cash, although we‘ll take it and use it for other projects.  How does your organization feel about another saying, we got enough money? 

VON BERNUTH:  Well, I think it‘s astounding. 

We‘ve been working in Aceh for 20 years.  We assume in the wake of this disaster we‘re going to be there for another 20 years.  And I think the hundreds of millions, the huge outpouring of generosity that‘s taken place in this country and that we, in part, have benefited from has been just astounding.  It‘s absolutely marvelous the way Americans have poured out their hearts. 

However, the challenge of the recovery for these communities is going to cost billions and billions of dollars, far more than any set of countries is going to be able to give. 

NORVILLE:  In the meantime, you wonder what‘s to become of these children.  I‘ve heard talk about a tsunami generation of children who are traumatized so by this event that their lives from this point forward can never be what they might have been. 

VON BERNUTH:  Well, that‘s a real concern.  We deal a lot in all different situations, many times in war with children who have been traumatized by what has happened to them. 

NORVILLE:  Do you treat them the same way?  Is the counseling the same? 

VON BERNUTH:  We have a basic protocol. 

And, indeed, I am going to suggest that we put on our Web for people that are interested a protocol on how you protect children who have been separated, so that your viewers can look at that tomorrow, after we have a chance to put it up on the program.

But, basically, after we register them, the next big step is the reintegration with the community, identify community members with whom the children can safely say, register those community families, so we know exactly who the kids are and we can go back and check up.  Then, third, in their recovery, provide safe places for them to play.  Create an environment in which they can return to normalcy in their lives.

And it is possible.  It can happen.  We‘ve seen children who were victimized in wars who were turned into child soldiers recover, go on to lead normal lives.  It can happen. 

NORVILLE:  And what happens to the kids who aren‘t lucky enough to come under the auspices of a group like Save the Children or one of the many others that are out there? 

VON BERNUTH:  Well, we have to hope that, with all the aid that has poured in, we will be able to reach most of them. 

NORVILLE:  All right, well, we do hope that.

And if you want to find out more about Save the Children‘s relief efforts, you can do so by calling them at 800-728-3843 or visit their Web site at savethechildren.org. 

Rudy Von Bernuth, thank you so much for being with us. 

VON BERNUTH:  Thank you, Deborah. 

NORVILLE:  We‘ll be right back.


NORVILLE:  That‘s our program for tonight. 

And we love to hear from you.  So, send us your thoughts or comments about the tsunami, about the global relief effort.  Our address is NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.  Some of your e-mails are posted on our Web page.  That‘s NORVILLE.MSNBC.com, which is also where you can sign up for our newsletter. 

Tomorrow night and throughout the rest of the week, we will continue our special coverage of the tsunami disaster.  Coming up next, it‘s time for “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”

And before we go, more images from the devastation and the relief efforts in South Asia. 

I‘m Deborah Norville.  Thanks for watching.  Good night.



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