The deadly tsunami two weeks ago in the Indian Ocean has awakened many to the plight of people who live in low-lying coastal areas and on small islands. On January 6, world leaders announced their intention to support the development of a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean to match the system in the Pacific.
Several of the peaceful societies live on islands, though none are in the Indian Ocean. A major tsunami in the Pacific might be a different story, though the situation in the Pacific may be different from the Indian Ocean. A report from Tahitipress on January 5 indicates that when earthquakes do occur around the Pacific rim, they are usually so far from Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia that the tsunami waves are relatively small by the time they arrive, though some tsunamis have caused damage.
The low-lying Pacific atolls are in greater danger from the ocean. Catherine Lutz’s fascinating book on Ifaluk, Unnatural Emotions, describes the devastation that occurs on their very small island whenever a major typhoon hits. Winds up to 140 miles per hour force the ocean to surge over the highest point on the island, fifteen feet above sea level. The Ifaluk people all cluster in the “typhoon-proof” school near the highest point, while ocean water washes through. They live, as she puts it, with “the very real possibility of death for everyone (p.23).” Natural disasters are evidently a recurring fact of life on Ifaluk. It is not clear how they would cope—if they could cope—with a major tsunami.
Though they have not experienced a tsunami, the people of Tristan da Cunha, an island in the South Atlantic, are quite sensitive to the possibility of natural disaster. The British government evacuated the entire population of the island to the United Kingdom for two years when the island’s volcano erupted above the settlement in 1961 (see the account in Munch 1971). A major hurricane did extensive damage in 2001. So the Islanders, according to a report in Tristan Times on January 5, lowered their flags to half-staff as a way of commemorating the tsunami tragedy in the Indian Ocean, and, like people around the world, they have been supporting disaster relief efforts with their contributions.