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Higher impact

Disaster | Acts of God have hit several nations, but acts of man could have prevented some of the destruction

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

With large areas of the Philippine capital city of Manila still submerged under water after typhoon-induced flooding devastated the coastal city on Sept. 26, Pastor Luis Pantoja of Greenhills Christian Fellowship commended the young people in his congregation in Metro Manila for rescuing people in rubber boats and distributing relief goods. Pantoja preached his Sunday sermon in part from Lamentations 3:27: "It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth."

In a nearby neighborhood, a 16-year-old youth named Allen bore the yoke to the end: The young man living along the San Juan River helped many in his community cross a rising whirlpool to safety. After delivering his brother, Allen went under. He never surfaced. Jeff and Mary Ann Anderson of Action International Ministries-a missionary organization in the area-met with Allen's mother at the group's ministry site a few days later. "My heart ached for them," said Mrs. Anderson. "But to their community, Allen is a hero."

Allen was one of at least 1,200 people who died in a cluster of disasters that rocked Southeast Asia, Samoa, and India within two weeks. Officials warned the death toll could rise by thousands. Many more thousands remained homeless as aid workers rushed to deliver supplies and combat disease. The typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and a tsunami wreaked havoc in regions that have known disasters in the past, but seemed ill prepared for new ones.

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In the Philippines, Typhoon Ketsana and a second storm killed more than 300 people and damaged some $57 million worth of property and infrastructure. The storms destroyed another $128 million worth of crops. United Nations officials said relief money was drying up, and that the country needed at least another $101 million for aid efforts to help thousands left homeless. Standing water and mosquitoes threatened to spread diseases like dengue fever and malaria.

Officials said much of that standing water and flooding could have been prevented: Garbage and waste clogged drainage systems ahead of the storm, and many people lived in illegal huts that blocked waterways designed to alleviate flooding.

Destruction in Indonesia could have been prevented too. The country suffered a 7.6 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 30 that killed at least 700 people, though that number could double or triple, according to authorities. The 750,000 people living in the city of Padang lived and worked in buildings ill equipped to withstand an earthquake, despite strict building codes. The earthquake flattened at least 180,000 structures in the city.

Indonesian officials improved tsunami warning systems after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 12 countries, but they weren't ready for a different kind of disaster.

Several thousand miles east, the South Pacific islands of Samoa weren't prepared for a tsunami that struck on Sept. 29, killing at least 177 people, including 32 on American Samoa. Witnesses said whole villages were sucked out to sea. Government officials had spent the last few years working on a tsunami warning system, and had even held drills for island residents. But after an 8.3-magnitude deep-sea earthquake triggered the tsunami in September, survivors said they never heard warning sirens.

Millions in India were caught off guard by the worst flooding to come to the country's central region near Hyderabad in 100 years. At least 250 people died, and some 2.5 million people were homeless after heavy rains triggered floods on Oct. 3. Officials had warned about 100 villages near the Krishna River of impending floods, and rescue workers evacuated some 200,000 people nearby. Survivors huddled around the region in some 1,200 temporary camps, waiting for relief.

Back in Samoa, thousands of people packed churches on the islands heavily populated by Congregationalists, Roman Catholics, and Methodists. During a prayer service in the Congregational Christian Church in the city of Tafuna, the town's governor, Togiola Tulafono offered this perspective: "We can thank the Lord for the blessings we received through this catastrophe. Although there were many lives lost because of it, in retrospect, God has spared so many more."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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