NEW YORK – Petra Nemcova had never even heard the word tsunami until one hit her.
Now, the Czech supermodel is calling on the United Nations to help the world better prepare for natural disasters.
“Human nature is being reactive instead of proactive, but in the case of natural disasters, when you are being reactive it is often too late,” Nemcova said last Thursday. “In the case of tsunamis there’s a beautiful thing that you have time. So if there are the right early warning systems, education and preparedness, you can save lives.”
Nemcova was vacationing in Thailand with fiance Simon Atlee in 2004 when the waves struck. He drowned and she barely survived with serious injuries, including a broken pelvis. After recovering, she founded the Happy Hearts Fund to rebuild schools devastated by natural disasters.
Nemcova and Tomas Alvarez-Belon, whose tsunami survival story was portrayed in the film “The Impossible,” were attending a U.N. event in New York ahead of the first U.N.-designated World Tsunami Awareness Day last Saturday.
Last year 142 countries backed a Japanese-led resolution to designate Nov. 5 for the commemoration, the date in 1854 when a Japanese villager saved countless lives by setting fire to sheaves of rice to warn of impending tsunami.
Japan could play an important role in tsunami awareness by sharing what it learned from the devastation of March 11, 2011, said Nemcova.
“Japan has learned the hard way,” she said, adding tsunami deaths are preventable. “Japan has the power to share with others their lessons learned and they have done so much ground work to know how to go about everything.”
Officials from Japan and other countries prone to natural catastrophes were also present to raise awareness about tsunami.
“We need to appeal to the people all over the world about the importance of being equipped with knowledge about the threat of tsunami, as well as the need for preparedness,” said Lower House member Yoshitaka Sakurada at a reception Thursday night.
As a former state minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, Sakurada emphasized how the deadly waves, while infrequent, inflict a tremendous amount of damage.
But with education, he said, lives can be saved if people learn to look for the tsunami that follow earthquakes and make their way to safety.
Earlier in the day a panel discussion included diplomats from Chile, Indonesia, the Maldives and Japan, who spoke about the natural disasters that have hit their respective countries over the years and the lessons learned.
Edmond Mullet, the U.N.’s chef de Cabinet, said that since 1996, 30 tsunami in 21 countries have led to 250,900 deaths.
“The significance of this threat was demonstrated in March 2011 by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami which claimed many lives, left many more homeless and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant,” he said.
The magnitude-9 earthquake led to some 16,000 deaths in northeastern Japan, with 90 percent caused by drowning, Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho explained.
But Sakurada is positive that through a continued focus on awareness, the goal of zero casualties can be met.
“I am convinced that by continuing such persistent efforts we can achieve the objective of zero casualties from tsunami,” the Japanese politician said. “Let us together continue to raise awareness about the threat of tsunami by remembering the spirit which created World Tsunami Awareness Day.”
In Japan, many municipalities and schools conducted drills last week to prepare for an earthquake and tsunami. Nov. 5 had already been designated by the Japanese government as tsunami disaster prevention day.
While the government tested its system for sending emergency bulletins warning people of an impending massive quake, more than 400,000 people in Wakayama Prefecture took part in a drill to protect themselves during an enormous temblor.
In the drill to quickly pass on information regarding an impending quake to local governments and companies across the country, some local governments used their wireless systems to automatically broadcast the received information through speakers.
However, the wireless systems of at least three local governments malfunctioned and failed to make automatic broadcasts.
In the city of Kumamoto, junior high school and high school students and their teachers took part in a quake-preparedness drill in the wake of a series of major quakes that hit the area in April.
A tsunami drill was also held last week in Chile, which is also prone to earthquakes and tsunami.