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December Tsunami Causes Jump in 2004 Disaster Death Figures

A new report finds more than 315,000 people perished last year in 366 natural disasters. The report from the Brussels-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters says nearly 300,000 of those people were killed by the December Tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The Director of the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Debarati Sapir, says it looked as if 2004 would be a very good year - until the tsunami struck on December 26.

Until then, she says, the number of natural disasters and the number of people killed by them was lower than it had been for the past 10 years.

"If you take the tsunami aside, the number of people dead from natural disasters, the total number of people dead from natural disasters was in the range of 15,000 people, 15,000 people," said Debarati Sapir. "Now if you add the tsunami, it becomes 315,000 people. It is out of all proportion. This is an event that has not occurred in the Indian Ocean in the memory of written history."

Ms. Sapir says the number of deaths is still provisional and is likely to be scaled downwards in the coming months.

She says this typically happens during acute natural disasters, such as earthquakes, flash floods, and volcanic eruptions. For example, she notes the final death toll in the devastating earthquakes which occurred in Bam, Iran and Izmit, Turkey was about 50 percent less than originally estimated.

But she says she believes the tsunami will be an exception. While several thousand people reported dead have turned up alive, she says she does not believe the numbers of those killed by the huge tidal waves will be significantly reduced further.

The report finds more than two-thirds of last year's natural disasters were caused by hydro-meteorological events, such as windstorms, floods, typhoons, and hurricanes. It says floods are the most frequent natural disaster and affect more people than any other.

While more people are killed in acute natural disasters such as earthquakes, Ms. Sapir says more people's lives are affected by other types of disasters.

"Acute disasters have an immediate impact of either you are killed or you are alive," she said. "So, the scope of impact is rather constrained as opposed to cyclones and floods which have a huge scope of impacts. So, when you have floods, you have Yangtze river flooding, you will wipe out entire provinces. This the earthquake does not do."

The report says most deaths and injuries occurred in developing countries last year, but the bulk of the $88 billion in economic damages occurred in developed countries. It says Japan and the United States suffered the greatest economic losses.