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A year later, tsunami warnings still need work

The next time a tsunami strikes the Indian Ocean rim — and scientists say that could happen anytime — an early warning system should detect it and trigger warnings in time. But will this plan really work?
A Thai official works on his computer during a demonstration of the earthquake warning system at the disaster warning center on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, last May. The system is one of many interim measures taken for the short-term; several years may still be needed to embed a state-of-the-art tsunami warning system across the Indian Ocean.Apichart Weerawong / AP file
/ Source: Reuters

The next time a tsunami strikes the Indian Ocean rim — and scientists say that could happen anytime — an early warning system should detect it and trigger warnings in time to millions living in coastal communities.

That's the plan anyway.

A $53 million interim warning system using a string of tidal gauges and undersea sensors is nearing completion in the Indian Ocean with help from the U.N's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Tsunami national warning centers are being planned for 27 countries around the Indian Ocean rim — three of them will be regional centers.

Thailand and Indonesia are installing warning towers on vulnerable beaches. Sri Lanka has established model "Tsunami Protection Villages". India is spending $27 million to set up a regional warning center by 2007.

But when a tsunami strikes again, will the warning centers cascade alerts down to remote villages? Will they be staffed 24 hours, seven days a week? Will authorities be able to put evacuation plans into effect when they do get warned?

Can governments, in the words of the IOC, "manage tsunami risk"?

"The latter implies emergency preparedness planning, legal and administrative frameworks, awareness campaigns and education, and the development of the operational capabilities to act in an emergency," IOC Executive Director Patricio Bernal said after a conference on a regional warning system last week in Hyderabad, India.

'Not a matter of if, but when'
The 1.8 million people displaced by the tsunami say that, besides finding permanent homes, they are most worried about another monster wave striking their communities.

And with good reason.

The Sumatra fault will rupture again with potentially equally devastating consequences to that of the Dec. 26 earthquake and resulting tsunami, one leading geophysicist said.

"It's not a matter of if, but when," said Barry Hirschorn of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. "It's an elastic band, waiting to snap," he said of an unstable Indian Ocean fault line that caused the quake-triggered tsunami.

Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research center, based at University College London also saw a higher risk for another tsunami.

"What is called 'unzipping' of the fault is fairly common and that is what is being seen here. It could be in a few years or a few decades. It is impossible to say."

There were no warning systems at all when one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, centered off northern Sumatra and south of the Nicobar islands, unleashed a tsunami that killed or left missing 231,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations.

McGuire said the UN-backed warning system is a fine start, but must be coupled with effective community planning if it is to be of practical use.

"There is little point in satellite technology alerting a center in Delhi or Jakarta that a tsunami is on its way, if that message can't be passed immediately to someone in every town, village and neighborhood who can rouse people from their beds or alert them in their fields," he said.

Take, for instance, Walagedo, a tidy hamlet about 80 km (50 miles) south of Colombo that was the first of Sri Lanka's Tsunami Protection Villages.

A warning center in Colombo will telephone Chandrsana de Silva, who runs the town's cafe in the event of a tsunami. Da Silva's job is to trigger a siren on the beach — that is, if he is at home that day and not taking tourists on adventure safaris.

It took the tsunami two hours to reach Sri Lanka's coastline. Indonesia was hit within 15 minutes.

In Japan, earthquake and tsunami warnings appear on television screens within 30 seconds of a tremor. In Hawaii, the authorities hold annual evacuation and training drills and public awareness activities.

Thailand has staged two evacuation drills on Phuket, its tourist mecca, and is building 15-meter (50-foot) tall warning towers that will broadcast evacuation orders in six languages.

Barry Drummond, the head of the earth monitoring group at Geoscience Australia, said since the 2004 tsunami Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Japan have all started to share real-time earthquake and ocean-level data.

He said the Dec. 26 tsunami led to an unprecedented level of scientific collaboration and a strong willingness to try to head off future disasters.

"In the tsunami business, you can go to a meeting anywhere, with all sorts of cultures and backgrounds there, and the one thing in common is everyone wants to work with everyone else," Drummond told Reuters. "It is really striking."