The latest tsunami in South-east Asia raises again the real fear in this region of another horrific disaster. But will the warnings save lives if a killer wave again strikes? Any warning will help some people have time to escape to higher ground, but the reality is that lives are still in danger the current warning systems.
For example, The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center immediately sent out an e mail statement today when the earthquake happened off Sumatra, warning that "there is a possibility of a destructive regional tsunami in the Indian Ocean." That message goes immediately to emergency services and the media who can issue warnings. But it seems difficult to clear the beaches and coastal towns and villages in time.
Thailand, for instance, recently held a massive tsunami evacuation drill across six southern provinces. Yet many villagers failed to hear the alert from the 79 warning towers that have been installed along the coast since the tsunami struck in Christmas of 2004. Instead, local officials resorted to hand-operated sirens and even car horns to alert villagers to the danger.
Some people have warned this could be dangerous in the event of a real tsunami.
A series of tsunami detection buoys have also been installed across the region by the US Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are supposed to inform people about a tsunami before it hits shore.
In Thailand’s case, a buoy off the popular tourist destination of Phuket, which was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, is not working properly. It was launched in December 2006 but stopped transmitting for a month in mid-June this year.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the buoy is now operating on a back-up battery and will likely stop transmitting for good sometime next month. Thai authorities say they will replace it as soon as they can.
It's nevertheless frightening that at the moment, an area such as Phuket full of thousands of tourists is dependent on a faulty tsunami buoy for early warning about a potentially killer wave.