Published December 28, 2004
BANGKOK, Thailand – The extraordinary loss of life from Sunday's earthquake (search) and tsunami waves is prompting Asian governments to consider developing a more comprehensive and effective warning system.
Scientists nearest the quake's epicenter knew shockwaves could create tidal surges (search) that would threaten coastal regions and shipping, but said Monday they had no way of measuring the size of the danger because a warning network like one used in the Pacific is not installed in the Indian Ocean.
The technology might have saved countless lives Sunday by giving residents in coastal areas — especially in Sri Lanka (search) and India, the hardest-hit nations hundreds of miles from the quake — time to flee to higher ground.
Officials in Thailand issued the only warnings of the impending disaster, but broadcasts beamed to tourist resorts in the country's south underestimated the threat and a Web site caution was not posted until three hours after the first waves hit.
Residents in Sri Lanka, where thousands were swept away or drowned, expressed disbelief that a warning system was in place elsewhere in the world but not in the Indian Ocean.
"This is tragic," said retired Sri Lankan air force chief Harry Goonetilleke. "There should have been such an arrangement for the region. This is absolutely not acceptable."
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland, who is also the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said he was not aware the region didn't have a warning system.
He said the World Conference on Disaster Reduction next month in Kobe, Japan, will now consider whether such a system can be designed and whether it is even possible to evacuate such large coastlines with only a few hours' notice.
"This is something we have to look into. 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," Egeland said.
India's information minister, Dayanidhi Maran, said his country would consider setting up a warning system, and Japan's government indicated it would lend expertise developed from the Pacific alert system that was started nearly 40 years ago.
On Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said his country would push for a regional system.
"I know it looks like a bit like closing the door after the horse has bolted," Downer told reporters. But he said he hoped a warning system could lower death tolls in the future.
The head of the Commonwealth, the bloc of Britain and its former colonies, called for talks on creating a global early warning system for tsunamis. Five Commonwealth countries — India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia and Bangladesh — were among those struck Sunday.
Harley Benz of the U.S. Geological Survey's national earthquake information service in Golden, Colo., said a basic system of seismic sensors and tide gauges could be set up within two years.
"Putting in the sensors is the easy part," Benz said. "The difficult part here would be coordination between emergency response agencies in the region."
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the world's most powerful since 1964 — shifted huge geological plates beneath the ocean northwest of Indonesia's Sumatra island an hour or two after daybreak, causing a sudden displacement of millions of tons of water.
Indonesian villages closest to the temblor's epicenter were swamped within minutes, but waves also radiated outward, gathering speed and ferocity until they made landfall.
Waves began pummeling southern Thailand about an hour after the earthquake. After 21/2 hours, the torrents had traveled some 1,000 miles and slammed into India and Sri Lanka. Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh were also hit. Eventually the waves struck Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, 2,800 miles away.
Indonesian officials said they had no way to know the earthquake caused the waves, known as tsunamis, or how dangerous they might be.
"Unfortunately, we have no equipment here that can warn about tsunamis," said Budi Waluyo, an official with Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. "The instruments are very expensive and we don't have money to buy them."
Kathawudhi Marlairojanasiri, the Thai meteorological department's chief weather forecaster, said the agency sent out warnings on radio and television beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday about a possible undertow along the southwest coast of Thailand, where tens of thousands of foreigners were vacationing.
But the warnings came as the first waves hit. By the time a Web site warning went up three hours later, at least 700 people were dead in Thailand, including a jet-skiing grandson of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Sulamee Prachuab, of the department's Seismological Bureau, said the government could not give an earlier warning because it did not have the necessary satellite-based technology.
Scientists said that without sensors in the region's seas to track the path of tsunamis, there was no way to determine the direction a wave would travel.
"They won't tell you how high the waves will be, but they can tell you when they will hit. Local authorities can warn citizens to get off the coast," said Waverly Person, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's national earthquake information service.
Such a system presumes, however, an organized communication system and widely understood procedures and discipline by hotel operators, fishing villages and local authorities to clear the coastline quickly in case of a coming disaster.
Most of Asia lacks such infrastructure, and casualties were highest in three very impoverished areas — the coasts of eastern Sri Lanka and southeastern India and the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island.
The warning system in the Pacific was started in 1965, the year after tsunamis associated with a magnitude 9.2 quake struck Alaska. It is administered by the U.S-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Member states include all the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America, as well as the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.
In Japan, a network of fiber-optic sensors records any seismic activity and passes the information to a powerful computer at the Meteorological Agency, which estimates the height, speed and arrival time of any tsunamis and the coastal areas most at risk. Within two minutes of a quake, the agency can sound the alarm.