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It's worth noting that the Sumatran quake wasn't the deadliest temblor in modern times. In 1976 as many as 750,000 people died in a huge quake that leveled the northern Chinese town of Tangshan. But at that time China was a closed society, a place that did not willingly present the face of its tragedies to the outside world. Few places are like that today. What made last week's disaster so extraordinary was the way in which it was a truly global event. The tsunami placed a girdle of death around half the earth. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, tens of thousands of tourists fleeing the northern hemisphere's winter were enjoying Christmas vacations, some in swank hotels, many more in cheap rooms for rent along the beaches. According to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, 20,000 Swedes were celebrating Christmas in Thailand alone. Six days after the earthquake, 60 were reported dead, and more than 3,500 were still missing--and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said there was an 80% chance that those missing were dead.
If mass tourism--one of the least celebrated but most profound of all the ways in which the world has been shrunk in the past 20 years--made the disaster uniquely personal to those who live thousands of miles away from its mayhem, so did modern technology. From broadband and wifi-enabled hotels, guests could email messages, pictures and videos back home. Mobile phones allowed people to stay in touch with their loved ones. And by some miracle of technology for which many were grateful, even when mobile circuits were overloaded, text messages got through. Sam Nicols, an engineer who researches nanotechnology at a Swedish university, was on a rock-climbing expedition in Tonsai, Thailand, when the tsunami hit, and he promptly used his Swedish cell phone to message his father John, a professor at the University of Oregon. "Just had a big tidal wave hit," read the first message. "I am not injured but lost some climbing gear, my camera and [my Thai] mobile phone. Please tell family am safe." Within hours of the quake, blogs with details of where to send aid had been launched, and terrifying pictures and videos of the tsunami were available at the click of a mouse.
The ubiquity of personal technology distorted the early news of the disaster. Because the first indications of its scale came from Sri Lanka and Thailand, it was easy to forget that the real devastation was not in well-heeled tourist enclaves but in dirt-poor Indonesian fishing villages. In any event, the earthquake reminded us--had we been foolish enough to forget it--that there are primal forces of nature that no amount of our wizard technology is able to confine. Yet technology can help. For decades, a sophisticated early-warning system has helped limit catastrophic damage from tsunamis in the Pacific. So, in the aftermath of the Sumatran earthquake, it was natural to ask whether anything could have been done to mitigate the disaster. And that is a question whose answer requires an understanding of what, precisely, happened on the morning of Dec. 26.