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SHOW: All Things Considered 9:00 AM EST NPR December 28, 2004

John Pike discusses what may be learned from satellite imagery of the areas hit by the tsunami

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

At this time, there are still untold thousands left homeless or dead in the hinterlands of Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It may yet be several days before the survival or disappearance of entire villages is confirmed. We wondered whether the technology of satellite imaging might help tell us what's going on there, or for that matter, what happened on Sunday. And so we've called upon John Pike, who's the director of GlobalSecurity.org.

Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (GlobalSecurity.org): Yes.

SIEGEL: When will we first see images of what has happened, say, in Indonesia?

Mr. PIKE: Well, we have finally gotten our first commercial satellite image from DigitalGlobe showing the tsunami in progress in Sri Lanka. We're hopeful that over the next several days we'll be seeing more imagery of more locations and we'll be able to get some imagery of what it used to look like so that we can see what has been destroyed.

SIEGEL: This is what's key here, that satellite images of, say, the damage wrought by a tsunami--those pictures can be very important, but they're really important if we also have pictures of what was there before.

Mr. PIKE: Well, one picture is worth a thousand words; two pictures are worth 10,000 words. It's that change extraction, your ability to see what used to be there vs. what is now missing, that's going to be important in terms of allocating your aid resources to understand which areas were most seriously affected, so you can get to those areas first.

SIEGEL: Now when you've looked at other pictures of other tsunamis that have hit the shore, what do you see? What's the typical impact of these waves?

Mr. PIKE: Well, if you're looking at a barrier island, for instance, it's scoured. The trees are still there, but all of the dwellings have just been completely swept away. In most cases what you see is that the tsunami wave is going to be able to move inland by maybe a mile or so, but eventually the run-up ceases once you get to a sufficiently high elevation or you get sufficiently inland. Inside that area, a mile or so from the beach, the destruction can be pretty severe.

SIEGEL: Severe, but limited to that area.

Mr. PIKE: It's limited to--basically the area in which the water is running up because, after all, it is a finite amount of water. Typically that run-up from the coastline is on the order of a mile or so.

SIEGEL: What's an important difference between, say, the path of a tsunami that's gone ashore and a hurricane that's crossed over Florida, let's say?

Mr. PIKE: It's a fundamental difference if you have adequate warning in terms of what sort of evacuation is required. For a hurricane, you have to move hundreds of miles out of its path. For a tsunami, you only have to move a couple of miles in order to completely escape the effects of it.

SIEGEL: Do you think that once we see a lot of the satellite images that tell the story of this earthquake and the many tsunamis that followed, will that help make the case for, say, a warning system that people would actually have so they could evacuate in time?

Mr. PIKE: Well, I think that once people see from the satellite imagery we hope to get over the next several days how limited in extent the damage is, it's going to be very clear that a simple warning network would enable people to walk out of harm's way, and I think that we'll see a big move to put that warning network into place in the Indian Ocean and certainly Americans living on the East Coast are going to want one for the Atlantic Ocean.

SIEGEL: Of course, people on Sumatra in Aceh right near the first quake, they would have had 15 minutes. So we're not saying a warning system really might have gotten them out of the way.

Mr. PIKE: The people who were hours away--the warning system would be helpful for. The people who are just across the street from it unfortunately are not going to be helped.

SIEGEL: John Pike, thanks a lot once again.

Mr. PIKE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.


Copyright 2004 National Public Radio (R)