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National Science Foundation

How do communities ready themselves for a disaster that may happen once in a lifetime—or never?

Screenshot image from flash movie of Disaster Cycle.

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Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation

Photo of Eleplant.

Several areas enlisted elephants to help remove debris left over from the earthquake and wave. Reports that the animals moved to higher ground hours before the tsunami struck suggest they sensed the danger ahead of time.

Credit: © Jose C. Borrero, University of Southern California Tsunami Research Group

Credit: Bob Karson, Karson Productions

According to sound expert Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, nature often sends warning signals before it goes on a rampage. To an elephant, for example, the magnitude 9.0 Sumatra earthquake probably made a loud noise, even though it was far away and under water. That, Muggenthaler said, is how animals knew to seek higher ground hours before the tsunami struck. Animals apparently often use signals imperceptible to humans to avoid danger.

Researchers are piecing together information from every sector of the natural world to understand, detect, communicate and respond to all manner of hazards. But to be effective, the pieces must work in lock step. For example, detection and warning systems must be linked to accurate modeling procedures that factor in physical data about the wave, as well as the shoreline geography.

Perhaps most importantly, the entire preparation and response system must be designed so that human beings can make informed decisions about how best to react.

By Elizabeth Malone and Zina Deretsky
A Special Report After the Tsunami