Experts say tsunami alerts not enough

By HARBAKSH SINGH NANDA, United Press International  |  Jan. 10, 2005 at 8:25 AM
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NEW DELHI, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Millions of people rendered homeless by the killer tsunamis have nothing to cheer with the announcement that an early tsunami warning system would be put in place in the Indian Ocean to ward off the human loss in the future calamities.

Although a gathering of world leaders in tsunami stricken Indonesia last week had backed setting up of a tsunami warning system, experts have warned that warning systems are not completely safe.

Speaking at the international donor summit in Jakarta, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, said: "We must draw on every lesson we can to prevent tragedies like this occurring in the future. Prevention and early warning systems must become a priority."

It is believed that a formal warning network, similar to the one in the Pacific where almost 90 per cent of the tsunami occurs, could have saved tens of thousands of lives. Based at Eva Beach in Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center uses seismic monitoring, seabed pressure sensors and tidal gauges to check the movement of the giant waves triggered by earthquakes.

None of the countries battered by tsunami on December 26 are members of the 26-nation PTWC group and were not warned of an impending disaster by the Hawaii based center.

However, some experts say that an earthquake and tsunami early warning system is crucial for saving lives, but it cannot guarantee total safety.

Nobel laureate Robert C Richardson of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, currently traveling in Bangkok to speak at a series of speeches called the "Bridges" dialogues sponsored by the International Peace Foundation, told The Nation daily the early warning systems are not completely safe.

But he called for setting up a system in the region anyways. "Scientists have responsibility. Geologists and geophysicists should come forward to help nations."

"It's not an individual country's responsibility. It is a collective responsibility," he said. "The US government has a bigger role to play. It should make funds available for scientists to help them research," Richardson said in an interview with the daily.

He also countered criticism of the US government's initial "stingy" response to tsunami survivors.

"[George W) Bush is not an expert," he said. "It takes time to assess the situation. I don't think there was any reluctance by the U.S government."

Richardson was a Nobel Prize co-recipient, along with Douglas Osheroff and David Lee, for discovering "super fluidity" in the helium-3 isotope. Researchers have used part of their discovery to test theories of how cosmic strings can form in the universe.

According to Jack Harrold, Director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C, technology is only part of the solution.

"To tell the police and fire and people on the coast in Sri Lanka, for example, that a tsunami has occurred, in and of itself does nothing unless they have the capability to alert the people on the beach, on the waterfront, in the villages and towns along the shore, and there has been a preplanning and some information on how to evacuate, where to go, how to get out of the danger areas."

Harrold told Voice of America that local authorities need training in what to look for and how to quickly evacuate coastal areas.

The Guardian reported that Australian scientists have begun designing a warning network for the Indian Ocean that could be installed within a year for about $20m. The network would combine data from 30 seismographs, 10 tidal gauges and six pressure sensors.

Japan, the pioneer country with world's most advanced tsunami warning systems, has offered to help put the system in place in the Indian Ocean.

David Long, a tsunami expert with the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, told The Guardian that: "A warning system, although very nice and it looks as though we're doing something, is just one element. The second is making sure you've got civil defense plans and a way to send messages down."

"The most important element of this early warning system is educating the public," Long said, adding that coastal region communities can be taught to head inland or for high ground if they feel an earthquake or see the sea retreating.

A team of U.S scientists is due to arrive in the tsunami battered regions of Sri Lanka.

Philip Liu, Cornell University professor of civil and environmental engineering, who helped develop the tsunami-warning system for the littoral states of the Pacific Ocean, is leading the team that will include scientists from the U.S. National Science Foundation's Tsunami Research Group and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Liu's visit is aimed at understanding the characteristics of ocean waves and the way they interact with coastlines and coastal structures.

India and Thailand have announced setting up of their own tsunami warning systems. New Delhi is hosting an international conference of scientists and seismologists on January 21 to finalize the warning system installation.

An all-party meeting of leaders Sunday agreed to Indian government's proposal to set up a tsunami warning system and also join the interntaional tsunami alert network.

Thailand has said the warning system is necessary to buy peace of mind of millions of tourists thronging its tropical beaches. Tourism is a major contributor to Thailand's GDP and the affected regions are tipped to lose $250 millions each month in the post tsunami period with thousands of people canceling their travel plans.

Most of the Asian nations battered by the tsunamis were taken by surprise following the 9.0 strength earthquake on the tip of Sumatra Island in Indonesia on Dec. 26. Despite the time difference between nations and the travel time consumed by the giant waves, there was no communication between the Asian countries over the impending disaster.

The waves traveled as far as eastern Africa leaving behind a trail of destruction in coastal cities of 11 nations. With the recovery of more bodies, the death toll has soared to 165,000 and thousands are still missing and presumed dead in the worst quake in 40 years.

"It would take time, probably at least a year, to establish a tsunami warning system in the wider Indian Ocean region. Whether it would be effective in giving people in vulnerable areas sufficient warning to move to higher or safer ground would depend on public education and the ability to spread any warnings quickly through local authorities," Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, wrote in The New Zealand Herald.

"This works in many parts of the Pacific but may not work in Indian rim countries with poor communications."

Whether the proposed early warning system is useful or not, the shocked and dazed governments in Asian nations want some system to be in the place before the next deluge hits the coastal areas.

However, the respective governments also need to set up state of the art communication facilities along the coastal regions to send out a quick warning because the tsunami can travel at a ferocious speed of 500 miles an hour and that would give very little time to the authorities to act since Indian Ocean is smaller and congested with islands as compared to Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

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