Until two weeks ago, Smith Thammasaroj was a prophet without honor. As chief of Thailand’s meteorological department in 1998, he was accused of scare-mongering when he warned that the country’s southwest coast could face a deadly tsunami.
He retired under a shadow, dismissed as a crackpot, accused of causing panic and jeopardizing a critical tourist industry that grew up around the tropical resort island of Phuket.
Today, Smith is being lionized for his foresight after the devastating Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 150,000 people around the region, including 5,300 in Thailand, where 3,600 more are listed as missing.
Less than a week after the tragedy, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appointed Smith as a vice minister and put him in charge of the newly established National Disaster Warning Office, which will work with seismologists to establish a tsunami early warning system.
U.S. could have helped with warning
Now when Smith speaks, people listen. And he has a new message: The United States must take some of the blame for the grievous number of casualties.
The 68-year-old forecaster — who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from the University of Vermont in 1962 — said he believes that if the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had acted quickly enough, many lives could have been saved.
Workers at the Hawaii center have said they tried in vain to warn Indian Ocean nations about the possible effects of the earthquake but they were not equipped to monitor that part of the world and didn’t even have phone numbers for the right officials.
The Hawaii center, set up in 1948, hosts the only regional network of its kind in the world, but is set up solely to monitor Pacific Ocean countries.
“I’m not angry at them for failing to warn Thailand, because at that time they did not know for sure, they merely said a tsunami was possible after the earthquake,” Smith told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.
But after the giant waves hit southern Thailand, the center had more than an hour to alert India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, “and if they warned those countries, they could have saved thousands of lives,” he said.
“It’s their failure to do so that makes me mad at them,” he said.
Meteorologists 'afraid to make a decision'
Smith has been equally critical of his own country’s meteorologists. He said earlier that staff at the Meteorological Department working on Dec. 26 knew what was coming but failed to act because they were ignored earlier.
“They knew exactly what was going to happen, but they ... were afraid to make a decision, because they believed if they made a wrong forecast they would get blamed,” Smith said.
The Meteorological Department has said it knew about the earthquake and the possibility that it could trigger a tsunami about an hour before waves began slamming ashore.
But they said they had no way to determine the size of the waves — and therefore the threat they posed — and were reluctant to issue a warning without such information because it could harm the tourism industry and anger the government.
Smith showed no such reluctance when, as head of the meteorological bureau, he made headlines in 1993 and 1998 with warnings about a possible tsunami.
His 1998 warning, which came after an earthquake-triggered tsunami killed more than 2,000 people in Papua New Guinea, sent droves of people running for the hills in southern Thailand. But no tsunami hit Thailand, and furious tourism executives and government officials excoriated Smith for his judgment.