11 Years Ago in Discover

By Anne Casselman|Sunday, June 05, 2005

On December 26 an English teacher named Munwan was buying fish on the ferry dock of his town on the east coast of Sri Lanka when he noticed the ocean suddenly rise—just what an American magazine he had read described water doing before a tsunami strikes. He ran inland, shouting at people to follow him. Many thought he was out of his mind, but the 20 to 30 people who followed survived—and now think he is a hero. Munwan, who collects American and British magazines, was interviewed 10 days later by CNN correspondent Harris Whitbeck and held up the magazine that saved his life. It was the May 1994 issue of Discover.

We didn’t intend our cover story, “Killer Waves,” to be a lifesaver, but we’re happy, of course, that it was. Read in hindsight, the article could be described as prophetic. It raised the same questions that were asked so often in the wake of the terrible tsunami of 2004: What causes such devastation? Why did it happen? Why weren’t more people warned? Sadly, the answers we found 11 years ago haven’t changed much today. “No matter what we do, tsunamis are going to happen,” Caltech seismologist Hiroo Kanamori told associate editor Tim Folger in 1994. “The question is whether we can have a very effective tsunami warning system.”

Unfortunately, no warning system was in place to alert the dozen countries struck by the December tsunami. Now nations are scurrying to set one up in the Indian Ocean. “There’s a trend here,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer Eddie Bernard told Folger. “We always build a warning center after a big tsunami. We built one in Hawaii after the 1960 event. We built one in Alaska after that 1964 event. After. I want to underline the word after.”

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