Blogger by Moonlight, or The Earthquake-Tsunami Saga

That title makes me think: "Booger by Moonlight." But that's a different story altogether.

So: Last Thursday night, we were following our usual custom of watching the local news (if for no other reason to catch one or another of the occasional on-air snafus that add up to must-see TV). About 15 minutes in, one of the anchors cut in with word of an 8.8 earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan. One of the odd things I have set up via an email account is U.S. Geological Survey reports of Pacific earthquakes, so I'd been aware of a series of sharp quakes in the region that seemed to kick off with a 7.2 quake. Within a few minutes, the Thursday evening (Friday afternoon Japan time) quake magnitude was updated to 8.9 and eventually 9.0. Having gone through a handful e of 6-point shakes and a 7-pointer that was centered 60 miles away but was strong enough to wreak havoc in the central Bay Area, 9.0 is unimaginably powerful.) Soon, the channel was showing pictures, though not very clear ones, of an unidentified city location where, in the distance, you could just make out a flow of water (my guess it was a view of the tsunami just beginning to flow into Sendai, a city of 1 million on the northeast coast). After seeing that, I called my son Eamon and daughter-in-law Sakura–her hometown is about 50 miles north of Tokyo and 180 miles from the quake epicenter–to ask if they'd heard about the quake. They hadn't, yet, but immediately got on the phone to try to reach Sakura's family (they were all fine, though the shaking had been quite strong where they were and lots of stuff inside their home had come crashing down).

After hearing from Eamon, I started to think about how the event would impact our local public-radio news operation in San Francisco. Well, sure, there'd be reaction in the Japanese-American community here. And yes, there was a possibility of a tsunami on this side of the Pacific, though in 25-plus years of covering news here tsunami threats have generally been non-events on this part of our coast (not this time, though). In time, a couple colleagues showed up on email to share ideas for coverage in the morning. Then I headed to the one immediate outlet for news we have, a blog we call News Fix. I made my first post around midnight, then kept updating until 4 a.m. Friday morning. There was enough traffic to early posts on tsunami warnings for California that it broke the site (we had some incompatible, inefficient widgets installed, apparently). I and others posted later Friday, on Saturday, on Sunday, then again Monday.

Posting on that news blog is different from posting here. It's much more to the point, and I feel much less need to be discursive. The result: Less thought, fewer words, more links, frequent posts. Here's the list from the last few days:

Links to Coverage of Japan's 8.9 Quake, Tsunami

California, West Coast on Tsunami Watch

1964: A Distant Quake, a Disastrous California Tsunami

Tsunami Warning for California, Oregon

U.S. Geological Survey Breaks Down Monster Quake

Japan Quake-Tsunami Aftermath: Fears About Nuclear Plants

When the Tsunami Arrived in San Francisco Bay

California Tsunami Watch: Canceled

Japan's Great Quake: The California Perspective

More Maps and Images of Japan's Great Quake

Japan's New Crisis: Fighting to Avert a Nuclear Disaster

Japan's Nukes: What and Where They Are

More on Tsunami Aid

A brief reflection on tsunami aid statistics: It’s clear, two weeks after the calamity struck, that most of the world’s wealthier nations have — either through shame or competitiveness or just plain good feeling (why did I list the best alternative last?) — come forward with a significant pile of cash to address the disaster. An updated list from Reuters shows a total of more than $5 billion in government aid pledged. At the top of the list in total contributions: Australia (detailed in this updated earlier post). At the top in per capita (an updated list) is Norway. The list includes some countries you figure don’t have a lot of spare cash lying around, too: Bulgaria, Niger, and Mali, for instance.

The Reuters tally also includes statistics on private giving. The total: about $1.3 billion, and that does not include contributions from the United States.

The scale of the disaster is so vast, and the amount of money committed so far to relief seems to have mounted so quickly, it’s hard to get a handle on how well the need is being met. (And of course, even the total of $6 billion plus is small compared to the amount of money the world’s only superpower — oh, hey, that’s us — is dropping in Iraq. Our rough expenditure on that little mission of mercy tops $7 billion — every month.

Maybe a more pertinent piece of context is this: the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, which destroyed about 3,000 dwellings and killed 25 people, reportedly caused between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in damage (insurers are said to have paid out $1.7 billion). Insured losses for the 2004 hurricane season in Florida (something like 120 people killed) have been put at $17.5 billion. Even making allowances for the way property is valued in the United States, the $6 billion-plus promised to South and Southeast Asia so far is just the beginning of dealing with the disaster.

Tsunami Aid: Norway Number 1

Based on the stats in my earlier-posted list, here’s the per capita ranking for selected nations and their government contributions to the tsunami relief effort (it would be interesting to do the nation-by-nation stats on private contributions, too, but I need to get off my butt and so something resembling real work at some point today). And yes, that number for Norway is correct. The government in Oslo raised its initial pledge of 100 million Norwegian kroner (about $16.3 million) to 1.1 billion kroner ($180 million) (as reported in the English edition of Aftenposten). Norway’s population is just 4.6 million, so the per capita figure exceeds that of even the sparsely populated Number 1 donor in total aid, Australia). If the United States made a commitment at a similar rate to Norway’s, its aid figure would come to a little more than $11.5 billion.

(Just for fun, I’ve thrown in each country’s world ranking in per capita GDP from the CIA World Factbook; the rankings are in parentheses after each country’s per capita aid figure in U.S. dollars).

–Updated on 1/5/04 to reflect new aid commitments from Australia and Germany.

–Updated on 1/8/04
to reflect new aid commitments and add Kuwait, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland.

–Updated on 1/8/04 to add Finland and the Netherlands and update French aid total.

–Updated on 1/9/04 to reflect increased aid commitment from Finland.

–Updated on 1/11/04 to reflect increased aid commitment from Canada.

1. Norway:
$39.13 (Per capita GDP rank: 2)

2. Australia: $37.82 (14)

3. Qatar: $29.76 (36)

4. Denmark:
$14.11 (8)

5. Canada: $13.24 (11)

6. Switzerland: $13.00 (7)

7. Finland: $12.56 (22)

8. Sweden: $8.33 (24)

9. Germany: $8.17 (21)

10. United Arab Emirates: $8.00 (32)

11. Kuwait: $4.35 (47)

12. Japan: $3.91 (17)

13. Taiwan: $2.21 (31)

14. Netherlands: $2.09 (16)

15. Spain: $1.69 (34)

16. New Zealand: $1.68 (35)

17. United Kingdom: $1.61 (19)

18. European Union: $1.36 (26)

19. United States: $1.19 (3)

20. Saudi Arabia:$1.17 (69)

21. France: $1.05 (20)

22. China: $0.05 (120)

Tsunami Bucks (Per Capita Edition)

Just because it appears to be a subject of interest based on searches reaching the information-laden Infospigot site, here’s a quick listing of some of the notable government tsunami aid pledges and how they break down into per capita amounts. I don’t have time to write a table, so the numbers are presented in a sort of unattractive (but still useful, I hope) fashion: The country name (with a link to a news source) is followed by the current announced aid commitment stated in U.S. dollars (I calculated exchanges using an online calculator at The number in parentheses is the initial aid pledge, if known. The rest is self-explanatory: national populations are stated in millions and are linked to national government statistics sources where possible.

One conclusion I’m inclined to draw from the numbers is that most governments around the world, including ours, simply underestimated the magnitude of the disaster the region was dealing with. I’d say Japan and Norway were the early exceptions to that: Japan, perhaps, because of its familiarity with tsunamis and their effects and Norway because it was mindful of how many of its citizens were in the region. The sense that the event wasn’t initially seen as the catastrophe it was is reinforced by reading the transcript of Colin Powell’s State Department press briefing on Monday morning, more than 36 hours after the tsunamis struck. He actually led off with the head of USAID talking about the $15 million the United States was contemplating committing to the relief effort. But the reporters on hand were more interested in talking about Iraq and other subjects and never, as far as the record shows, asked any questions critical of the amount suggested.

–Updated 1/5/05 with increased aid commitments from Australia and Germany.

–Updated 1/8/05 to add statistics for the European Union, Kuwait, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.

–Updated 1/8/05 to add statistics for Finland and the Netherlands and update France’s aid total.

–Updated 1/9/05 to update Finland’s aid total (thanks, Tuomas).

–Updated 1/11/05 to reflect new Canadian aid (thanks, Jordon).

Australia: $764M ($15.6M). Population: 20.2. Per capita: $37.82

Canada: $425M ($3.3M). Population 32.1. Per capita: $13.24

China: $63M ($2.6M). Population: 1,300. Per capita: $0.05

Denmark: $76.2M ($1.8M). Population: 5.4. Per capita: $14.11

European Union: $618M ($30M). Population: 456.3. Per capita: $1.36

Finland: $65.3M ($4M). Population: 5.2. Per capita: $12.56

France: $64.6M ($0.135M). Population: 61.7. Per capita: $1.05

Germany: $674M ($1.35M). Population: 82.5. Per capita: $8.17

Japan: $500M ($30M). Population: 128. Per capita: $3.91

Kuwait: $10M. Population: 2.3. Per capita: $4.35

Netherlands: $34M ($2.6M). Population: 16.3. Per capita: $2.09

New Zealand: $6.9M. Population: 4.1. Per capita: $1.68.

Norway: $180M ($16.4M). Population: 4.6. Per capita: $39.13

Qatar:$25M. Population: .84. Per capita: $29.76

Saudi Arabia: $30M ($10M). Population: 25.6. Per capita: $1.17

Spain: $68M ($1.35M). Population: 40.3. Per capita: $1.69

Sweden: $75M ($0.75M). Population: 9. Per capita: $8.33

Switzerland: $96.2M. Population: 7.4. Per capita: $13.00

Taiwan: $50M ($5). Population: 22.6. Per capita: $2.21

United Arab Emirates: $20M. Population: 2.5. Per capita: $8.00

United Kingdom: $95.1M ($1.3M). Population: 59.6. Per capita: $1.61.

United States: $350M ($15M). Population: 295.2. Per capita: $1.19

(Source for statistics on earlier/initial aid offers are mostly from “Reuters Factbox: Nations pledge aid after Asia tsunami disaster” ( Most press sources are now giving the initial United States commitment as $35 million, but they’re incorrect. The initial total offered by the State Department was $15 million and is detailed in a transcript of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s press briefing, along with the head of USAID, on December 27.)

Tsunami Aid: Quick Calculation

The United States made an initial pledge of $15 million in post-tsunami disaster relief. Incredibly generous compared to, say, France, which is offering 100,000 euros; but less open-handed compared to Japan, which is sending $30 million and other forms of help; aid from Australia and the Netherland (something like $7.5 million and $2 million, respectively) is far greater per capita than what we’re offering. But it’s really the thought that counts.

Here’s how our $15 million stacks up against the pile of money we’re ploughing into Iraq. The cost of our ongoing "bust a dictator, start a democracy" project is about $150 billion to date. That’s 10,000 times as much as we’re contemplating putting into the tsunami recovery effort. Wait, though: It’s taken us 21 months to spend all that Iraq money. In round figures, let’s say we’ve spent $7 billion a month on average on dictator busting. In round figures again, that breaks down to $230 million a day. We spend $15 million in Iraq every one hour and 40 minutes. So the conclusion is obvious: We’re shelling out about 15.33 times as much for one day of building our future Mesopotamian democracy as we’re willing to spend to help deal with a calamity that some are calling the costliest disaster in history.