Image: Buoy deployment
NOAA file
A buoy for Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART, bobs in the Pacific Ocean after deployment from the ship Ronald H. Brown in 1999.
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updated 5/2/2006 4:18:29 PM ET 2006-05-02T20:18:29

In 1960, a powerful earthquake off Chile triggered a tsunami that hit Hawaii in just 15 hours. Traveling at 500 mph, the monster wave kept building in size before striking Japan seven hours later.

Now, almost 50 years since hundreds died in that disaster, scientists will use the scenario in an international drill involving up to 28 Pacific Basin countries. The exercise, the first ever of its kind, is aimed at motivating countries to test and review their abilities to detect and prepare for a similar catastrophe.

UNESCO has been brainstorming the drill since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 11 countries.

"What we thought right after the Indian Ocean tsunami was, 'How do we make sure everyone is as prepared as they can?'" said Laura S.L. Kong, director of the intergovernmental oceanographic commission, part of the U.N. agency. "The goal of the drill is to be able to have each country kind of look at whether they are prepared for the next tsunami."

Checking communication channels
On May 16, the first day of the test, researchers at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii will issue warnings about an earthquake off the Chilean coast that would be powerful enough to trigger a monster wave as deadly as the one that formed on May 22, 1960.

That tsunami, caused by an 9.5 magnitude temblor near Chile, raced across the Pacific before sweeping the Big Island, Hawaii, where 61 were killed in Hilo, Hawaii, and later hitting Japan, where about 200 perished.

On May 17, a second bulletin will be sent about an earthquake off Luzon in the Philippines, warning of a possible tsunami building in the South China Sea that could threaten Hong Kong and other areas of Asia, said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist at Oahu, Hawaii's Ewa Beach center.

Fryer said the drill is important because it will be the first time that all communication channels will be checked at once. Sometimes, countries take days to reply to messages sent from Hawaii, Fryer said.

"We don't always get feedback. We don't always know whether the messages went through," he said. "This time they know they are meant to be getting the messages, so if they don't get them, they will tell us."

Purely numbers
Unlike regular tests, Fryer said, this time warnings will have no messages, consisting only of numbers to avoid any confusion with people "whose first language isn't English."

Scientists will speed up the two simulations to cut the first drill to about eight hours. The second test should last about five hours, Fryer said. Costs of the drill should be limited to a few overtime hours.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization plans to compile a report detailing the results of the drill.

It's unclear how many countries will take part. About 28 countries have signed up, including those affected by the 2004 tsunami, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

"From that horrible experience, countries knew that they needed to improve their early warning system not to have that happen again," said Delores Clark, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The only way you know whether your system is working is when you test it."

Clark said an interim tsunami warning system covering the Indian Ocean could be in place by October.

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