Scientists knew in advance that southern Asia was going to be hit by a tsunami, but attempts to raise the alarm were hampered by the absence of early-warning systems in the region.
Within 15 minutes of Sunday’s earthquake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii had sent an alert to 26 countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, but struggled to reach the right people. Television and radio alerts were not issued in Thailand until 9am local time - nearly an hour after the waves had hit.
"We tried to do what we could. We don’t have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world," Charles McCreery, director of the centre, said yesterday.
The United Nations International Tsunami Information Centre, also run from Hawaii, confirmed the absence of basic emergency planning systems to get locals off the beach and seafront.
"Outside the Pacific these things don’t occur very often at all so the challenge is how to make people and government officials aware," said centre director Laura Kong.
Scientists on Australia’s remote Cocos Island, 1000km from Sumatra, which has a warning station designed to give Australia three to four hours’ notice of a tsunami, also detected the fast-moving waters and alerted emergency planners on the mainland within half an hour. But key officials within Indian Ocean nations could not be reached.
Their lack of preparedness comes in sharp contrast to Pacific nations such as Japan (where the entire public transport system can be halted) and the east coast of the United States.
Six "tsunameters" along the Pacific coastline, one near Chile and 14 off the Japanese coast, feed data to the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centres in Hawaii and Alaska.
Scientists wanted to place two more tsunami meters in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, but the plan had not been funded, said Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. The tsunameters each cost US$250,000 ($346,000) and take about a month to build.
Australia’s national agency for geological research, Geoscience Australia, indicated that effective communication in southern Asia might have bought 15 vital minutes for parts of the Thai coast and longer for Sri Lanka, which was hit 2 1/2 hours after the earthquake.
Japan’s network of sensors record seismic data and feed information to a national agency able to issue evacuations warnings within minutes.
An earthquake off the California coast would have triggered instant warnings to federal and state agencies via dedicated hotlines, and to the public via emergency broadcasts, said Paul Whitmore, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Alaska.
California also recently launched an electronic system that alerts citizens and emergency workers via email and pager, said Sheryl Tankersley of the state Office of Emergency Services.
"We do have a robust system here in California," Tankersley said. "We like to say it’s the best in the nation, if not the world. But it’s all based on neighbour helping neighbour. Co-operation is essential."
Tsunamis have been known in the Indian Ocean, notably one that killed several hundred people in Mumbai in 1945, and scientists have been urging countries in the region to protect their huge populations by being prepared.
At a meeting of the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in June, experts concluded that the "Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis" and should have a warning network. But no action was agreed upon.
Jan Egeland, who heads the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told a news conference that disaster preparation in the Indian Ocean area have focused on monsoons, which are common and can be devastating. Tsunamis typically occur in the area once a century.
"I think it would be a massive undertaking to actually have a full-fledged tsunami warning system that would really be effective in many of these places," he said.
Tad Murty, a tsunami specialist affiliated to the University of Winnipeg, said India, Thailand, Malaysia and others perceived tsunamis as "a Pacific problem" and had "never shown the initiative to do anything".
Governments in Asia conceded that they had failed to issue warnings after the initial earthquake, but said they could not afford the sophisticated equipment needed to track tidal waves.
"We have no equipment that can warn about tsunamis," said Budi Waluyo, of Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. "The instruments are very expensive and we don’t have money to buy them."
The chief of India’s National Institute of Oceanography said the likelihood of a tsunami hitting the Indian metropolis of Chennai had seemed as unlikely as the drowning of New York’s Fifth Avenue in the film The Day After Tomorrow.
But India and Sri Lanka said they would consider establishing a tidal gauge warning system - a project expected to cost millions of dollars and take a year to complete.
Hilton Root, a Milken Institute senior fellow and a former US representative to the Asian Development Bank, said poverty and instability could be the biggest barrier to implementing the most crucial aspect of an early-warning system: moving people away from danger.
"These are countries that really don’t get along, are at different stages of development and don’t trust each other for political reasons," Root said.
But the tsunami’s extraordinary toll may be "a wake-up call ... that they need to think about regional risks and start doing something about it".
- INDEPENDENT, REUTERS