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Tsunami Learning Exchange: West Coast to Indian Ocean

In the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the U.S. government is spending millions to help south Asian nations develop a robust warning system. Part of that aid money went to the University of Washington and NOAA for an international training program. The first class has just graduated with certificates in Tsunami Science and Preparedness.

The 32 disaster planners and tsunami scientists from south Asia received an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington State. They toured the Pacific coast tsunami zone by canoe, bus and on foot. In the small port city of Aberdeen, the visitors walked a tsunami evacuation route, marked with yellow reflectors and the internationally recognized blue and white tsunami icon.

The deputy mayor of a beach resort in Thailand brought pictures and brochures to share, including one showing tsunami evacuation signs on Patong Beach. The menacing waves and blue arrows bear a remarkable resemblance to signs recently installed on the Washington, Oregon and California coast. And that gives a clue why the Tsunami Training Institute takes place in Washington state.

The Indian Ocean tsunami served as a wake up call for many northwest American coast dwellers. "We do have a long and vulnerable coastline," observes University of Washington administrator John Stephens. Noting that there's a geologic fault line offshore just like the one that spawned the Indian Ocean tsunami, he adds, "Seattle - in the United States at least - is an obvious place for geographic and academic reasons." The National Center For Tsunami Research is in Seattle. Stephens says the combined federal and university resources make the area a nexus of expertise and urgency on tsunami studies.

Scientist Frank Gonzalez helped organize the two-week training program. Officially, it was a comprehensive overview of tsunami response. Though he says 'learning exchange' might be a better description. "We have learned so much from these folks who have recently gone through such a huge disaster." Gonzalez says the U.S. "will benefit greatly from the experiences and the lessons that they've learned."

Some of that exchange happened during a community meeting at Aberdeen City Hall, where visitors stood up to describe the tsunami aftermath in their countries. Sushma Guleria, who worked on tsunami relief in Indian coastal villages, noted that "women have special needs."

"You know, we generally tend to forget this aspect. But you need to take care that each individual -- the male and female -- they have separate needs when they are in these shelters."

The point struck a chord with Aberdeen resident Debbie Lansing. "Women need pads and tampons, you know, different things like that…. Men wouldn't think of things like that, that women need," she concluded, then scurried off to ask her local officials if they've gotten input from women.

Sushma Guleria said she wished India's emergency management program were as systematic and organized as she observed here.

Thoriq Ibrahim said he would go home reassured. Home for him is in the Republic of Maldives, a low-lying island chain where the only escape from a tsunami is up, if there's a reinforced building. "I initially thought that it is only a problem that we are facing," he admits. "But no. Even here in the United States you have the vertical evacuation that is done."

The Sri Lankan delegation offered advice on how to get busy American families to prepare for a tsunami. The Sri Lankans work around distracted parents by enlisting grandparents to drill with their grandchildren.

The sharing of best practices is part of what the U.S. Agency for International Development is trying to achieve by funding the Tsunami Training Institute. The University of Washington and the federal research center in Seattle will repeat this tsunami science and preparedness program next year. U.S. taxpayers are also chipping in for similar training in Bangkok.