Business Schools

Dipak Jain's Close Call in Phuket


Every December since 1989, Dipak Jain, head of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, has traveled to Bangkok to teach a course there. This year his wife and children tagged along, and Jain decided to take them to the Thai island of Phuket for a few days of vacation.

Barely 12 hours into the trip, the leader of BusinessWeek's No. 1 MBA program was sipping tea in his hotel suite when he felt the sofa shaking. He peered out the window from the second-floor balcony and felt another tremor. Concerned, he tuned in to CNN's World Report only to see a short ticker message discussing a small earthquake in Sumatra.

Jain thought nothing of it and gathered his family for a short walk to have breakfast at a coffee shop near a beach. They had planned to explore the beach after breakfast, but when they were finished they decided to head back toward the hotel -- in the opposite direction -- instead. Their room was on the back side of a large lagoon, some 500 yards from the beach. Jain spoke with B-schools Editor Jennifer Merritt about what happened next -- and what he thinks developed countries should do to help. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: When did you realize something was wrong?

A: We were halfway back to the lagoon, which was about 150 yards from the coffee shop. Then suddenly, from the other side of the lagoon, which was closer to the beach, I saw huge waves coming toward us. The water dropped into the lagoon. It reminded me of Niagara Falls. The waves were carrying fishing boats, lounge chairs, and garbage from the beach.

Q: Did you run?

A: I didn't realize yet what was happening. I just knew something was happening and didn't realize how serious [the situation] was. We just kept watching. Then things settled down, and we went back to our room for water bottles and snacks to have for the day.

Q: So, even then, it wasn't clear what had happened?

A: No, but soon our friend [who was scheduled to take the family on a tour] arrived, and we started driving toward the beach, and the roads were washed out and closed. Our friend's father called him and told him, "Don't go anywhere, pull over because the beaches are all destroyed."

Even then, we knew it must be part of the earthquake, but we didn't realize how bad it was. We turned around and drove into the city where there was nothing wrong, ate lunch, and at 2:30 p.m. we turned on the news. It still did not sound so bad. But when we arrived back at our hotel we were told over the loudspeakers not to go to rooms, but to go to the lobby.

I told my wife to get our passports and our children's passports. Then the general manager of the hotel asked everyone to leave immediately and evacuate to the parking lot of the hotel [since] there was another warning of a tidal wave. At 3:45 p.m., we were told the danger was over. But people on the beachside were vacated immediately.

When we came back, CNN had on breaking news of the earthquake and destruction, but still said only three people were missing. The news was [mainly] about India and Colombo [in Sri Lanka]. But as the day went on, the news was getting worse. The airport was closed -- it's close to beach, and the sand was covering the runways.

Q: How did you get out of Phuket?

A: We were able to leave at 11:30 p.m. I had to call a government official in Bangkok [who is a Kellogg grad], and someone flew in from Bangkok with tickets for us. Before we left, we went toward one of the beaches, and it was a total mess. There was no beach, it was all covered with water and garbage.

Q: What do you think more developed countries in the West and Asia should do now to help?

A: This is going to affect the GDP [of Thailand alone] by 0.3%. That is a significant number. Next year, people will not be planning for trips in this region. But what amazed me was that when I got back to my class in Bangkok, many of the students were collecting money and clothes. Some of the doctors in the class said they would like to leave class so they could go help.

The issue I talked to the students about at first was tourism to the hotels in Phuket. Since [bookings] will go down, they need to be proactive in gaining confidence. The government needs to create a warning system. There has to be appropriate technology. That's where other countries can help.

Q: How so?

A: The question is, "What type of help can different countries provide?" That is a very important question. Last year, there was the same problem of catastrophe with the Iran earthquake. The year before that, there was a large earthquake in India.

First, countries in the region must help. In some cases, it's not a question of resources, but of attitude -- for example, India helping Sri Lanka and putting aside differences. You must get rid of the constraints. So much help is needed. Each country needs to take the approach that whatever way they can help, they need to do it.

The other type of help [developed countries can offer] is...in terms of technology. The U.S., for example, could help create an alert system. The first earthquake was at 8:05 a.m., the second [tremor felt] was around 8:30 a.m. When I saw the water coming, it was around 10 a.m. If there were two trembling events, how is it possible to not have a technological system that warns this is going to happen?

Q: Should corporations pitch in?

A: First and foremost, things need to be done by the governments, like the U.S. government and the governments in Europe, because very often the problems of rebuilding are created by the government. So, you need the governments [of the affected countries] on your side first.

After that, the region needs to improve the geological and weather prediction systems -- not just the technology, but the talent. That's what companies or governments should try to help build up -- taking people from the region and training them [in the use of] technology. The governments of the region must do this to create a level of confidence.

Many of the areas thrive on tourists, so the tourists have to feel safe. The whole notion of safety has to be brought in. If [tourists] don't feel safe, it is going to affect the economy in a worse way.

Q: Beyond technology, how should developed countries help?

A: In the U.S., [if] a small hospital cannot help you, it will be associated with a larger research hospital. But this type of system does not exist there. For example, look at Sri Lanka. They did not have enough helicopters to airlift people who needed medical care, and they had no support hospitals in bigger cities [to draw on]. Companies ought to [help these countries] develop some kind of a system so [that if] there is a problem, you are safe.

There are countries in this region that have better technology, better links for medical care, and they should help.... We need to keep investing and creating an alternative because this is a very important thing. Edited by Thane Peterson


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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