A grim reminder of nature's deadly force

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 December, 2004, 12:00am

Nature yesterday sent an ugly reminder to humankind that it remains a powerful and untamed force. It showed its might in the form of an earthquake off northern Indonesia.

Measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, the quake generated huge tidal waves that pounded shores across southern and Southeast Asia, hitting hundreds of thousands of coastal residents in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India.

Among the thousands of victims were tourists spending their Christmas holidays in resorts that scatter the region. Many Hongkongers are holidaying at these resorts, but there was no immediate indication whether any are among the victims.

Of all the natural disasters that have bedevilled humans through the ages, earthquakes are among the hardest to predict. Although scientists have built up an extensive knowledge of how quakes occur, they are far from being able to predict when the earth will grumble and shatter the ground on which we stand. We do know that when an earthquake hits under the ocean, it will create destructive tsunamis that can travel hundreds of kilometres in a matter of hours.

Yet, even in this era of instant communications, there is often too little time to warn those who are likely to fall victim to their brute force. Yesterday's quake struck Sumatra shortly before 8am. By mid-morning, tsunamis had hit the shores of countries lining the Bay of Bengal.

What makes earthquakes one of the most deadly weapons of nature is the suddenness of their attack and the enormous damage they can inflict. Who would have thought that 31,000 residents of the ancient Iranian city of Bam would die in their sleep when a massive quake struck at 5.28am on Boxing Day last year? The tremor was so powerful that it flattened the whole town.

Hong Kong is fortunate that it is not located in a quake zone, although it is still prone to other natural disasters, notably typhoons. But typhoons are so much more visible that scientists have been able to track their paths and deliver timely warnings. Over the years, we have become better prepared to withstand their attack. Hillside squatters have been removed, slopes stabilised and infrastructure and buildings strengthened.

Grumblings about typhoons still occur - about whether the observatory properly considers the transport, financial and other social implications of asking people when and if to stay home or go to work. The human casualties now are likely to be anglers, surfers and wave watchers defying warnings to stay away from the coast.

As we count our Christmas blessings in quake-free Hong Kong, let us not forget that many people around the world are not so lucky.

We should also remember that complacency is our biggest threat as it could crush our natural instincts to be fearful of the power of nature.