Wednesday, November 21, 2012

JAN. 4, 2013 UPDATE: Movie on One Family’s Harrowing Experience during and after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Is Tough To Watch, Especially if You Know One Phone Call Might Have Saved Thousands of Lives

A major motion picture – The Impossible – is now in theaters eight years after the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. When you see this movie, watch it with the knowledge that nothing the scientists at Honolulu's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center did that day saved any lives.

(For a detailed description of the breakdown in the Warning Center's warning, read the December 27, 2007 post immediately below this one.)
 
The key word in the name of that agency is Pacific. Because the PTWC had not planned and implemented any media-contact protocols for massive earthquakes outside the Pacific, they had no way to send a useful alert – i.e., one that alerted people to the peril of the onrushing waves.

There were no warning protocols in place to efficiently tell those coastal populations what PTWC officials knew in the first hour after the massive earthquake devastated Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

They knew an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 and greater would most likely produce a killer tsunami. Knowing that, however, they realized within half an hour of the quake that they had no way to send an alert to the countries endangered by the rising water that soon would arrive.

This blog was created one week after the event as our reaction to the “We did everything we could” talking point the PTWC adopted in that first post-quake week. Had they prepared adequately, the international news media – CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP and others – could have sent warnings to the Indian Ocean region using their globe-circling networks.

Scores of thousands of coastal residents and holiday travelers died for the lack of a warning, many of them hours after the tsunami was generated in the eastern regions of the ocean. It took that long for the waves to reach Sri Lanka and other nations, hundreds or thousands of miles from the epicenter.

We invite you to read our third anniversary post, below, for a summary of what we had learned and concluded about the crisis response by the time Christmas 2007 rolled around. And if you’re intrigued enough to continue reading, please start with our first post on January 2, 2005 and continue reading as the days and weeks unfolded while the world was still trying to make sense of the tragedy and what could have been done to prevent it – to the degree that anything could have saved those unfortunate people.

We attended a showing of The Impossible today. The first half of the movie is difficult to watch. The tsunami was the greatest tragedy of modern times. The second half is exceptionally emotional, as well. We urge anyone interested enough to read this Tsunami Lessons post to see the movie.

When you do, you’ll probably appreciate why the “we did everything we could” mantra of the PTWC following the tsunami was so infuriating

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Third Anniversary Show Offers Nothing New as PBS Recycles Remembrance of 2004 Tsunami; Were No Lessons Learned in Past Three Years?

NOTE TO VISITORS: Thank you for dropping by the Tsunami Lessons blog.  The underlying premise of this blog is this: Had a protocol been in place at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center -- painstakingly implemented and coordinated with the world's major globe-circling media in the quiet time before the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 -- one telephone call after the earthquake could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the Indian Ocean.  

Our most recent post here at Tsunami Lessons (below) was at the third anniversary of the Christmas 2004 tsunami, and we've not been updating this site due to the absence of a compelling reason to do so. We said what needed saying in the three years immediately after the event, and you're encouraged to read our posts from the beginning -- especially those in early 2005. 

However, the release on December 21, 2012 of "The Impossible" -- a film on the 2004 tragedy -- is reason enough to begin promoting the above premise. The emergence of Twitter and other social media will give this blog new opportunities to proselytize on the importance of building the world's major media into emergency notifications to the world's population.

We like to think our recommendations here on the Tsunami Lessons blog to improve media-based tsunami warnings have been heeded, but we're not so sure. The third-anniversary post was a downbeat take on the retelling of the TV documentary that keeps showing up, with no new information about lessons learned on how tens of thousands of lives might have been saved. Please do read this blog, especially if you have responsibility for tsunami warnings anywhere in the world. Some of you still need convincing. 

2012 UPDATE: The Tsunami Lessons blog, written by Carlson Communications, received a Gold Award (Humanitarian) in the HERMES Creative Awards 2012 competition. With a movie

Here's our Third Anniversary post, written on December 27, 2007:

Barely three months after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in December 2004, Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA program aired the documentary “The Wave That Shook the World” on Tuesday, March 29, 2005.

To mark the second anniversary of the tragedy, NOVA aired the same program on Tuesday, December 19, 2006. This week, NOVA’s choice for a remembrance of the third anniversary on Tuesday, December 25 was – you guessed it – the very same documentary.

Approximately two years and nine months have passed since “The Wave” was first broadcast. One might have reasonably expected new insights and new lessons learned to have emerged in that time to merit a fresh look at the mindsets and operational systems that failed to prevent tens of thousands of deaths in the first hours after the quake.

It’s a futile hope. “The Wave” program highlights the same attitudes and beliefs that were formed in the first three months after the tragedy. How could it not? It’s the same program. Nothing new is offered in these repeats, and one might conclude that the producers and scientists interviewed in the show have an interest in hammering home their “we did everything we could” litany – even though it’s obvious they didn’t do the one thing that could have saved lives.

Ignoring the Media Connection

That many of those deaths were preventable is not in doubt. This blog chose to remember the second anniversary a year ago with an exhaustive review of “The Wave” program’s transcript, focusing on the collective “blind spot” shared by the program’s participants on how they might respond to a major quake in the region. Here’s how we headlined that post:

Two Years after Quake, Rationalization Still
Primary Way to Deal with the Terrible Truth:
Nothing Scientists Did that Day Saved Lives


What would have saved lives was the activation of links to globe-circling news media – the central point of this blog since its inception on January 2, 2005. It’s the argument we’ve made repeatedly over the past three years, and a thorough reading of our posts going back to the beginning will show that others share this view.

But those links were not in place in December 2004. The “terrible truth” in our headline is that scientists and the public affairs personnel within NOAA had no game plan to activate if a magnitude 8+ earthquake struck the Indian Ocean region.

What Did They Know…and When?


Just seconds from the end of “The Wave” and almost as an afterthought, the documentary includes this quote by one of the scientists interviewed for the program:

“In retrospect, the scientific community should have been aware that these massive earthquakes do occur off Sumatra, and probably a little more emphasis should have been focused on the Indian Ocean, where it's documented that massive earthquakes occur.”

Precisely. Within a week of this blog’s inception, research for this blog found a report on the proceedings of the Nineteenth Session of the International Coordinating Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific in Wellington, New Zealand, September 29-October 2, 2003. As we reported on January 8, 2005, four NOAA officials, including the director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, attended this conference.

Page 30 of the report states: Due to its tectonic setting which is located at the junction of three major plates of the Pacific, Eurasian and Indo-Australian, and one minor plate of the Philippines, Indonesia has a high activity in earthquakes and tsunamis. Historical data show that many tsunamis in Indonesia are destructives (sic) and have affected neighboring countries such as Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, etc.

Continuing, page 48 says: "...the Southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis."

And the Point Is…..?

Knowing what they should have known about the potential for destructive tsunamis in the region, what did the PTWC and NOAA do to create a warning system that might actually save lives? Nothing has emerged in the past three years to suggest they did anything. Need proof? Here’s the quote of a PTWC scientist about two-thirds through “The Wave” as seen in 2005, 2006 and 2007:

"No contact points, no organization, no warning systems that I know of, in the area. Picking up the phone and thumbing through the phone book or thumbing through the Web is useless. In fact, it can be dangerous because you're not concentrating on warning someone who can actually do something for the people. So we're brainstorming basically, 'Who can we call?'"

A Chicago Tribune reporter put it this way:

“With a killer tsunami bearing down on Sri Lanka and India at airliner speeds, an effort to save thousands of lives came down to a handful of overworked employees in Hawaii trying to telephone government officials they did not know and did not know how to reach.”

What They Could Have Done

They could have activated a link to the major media – the very same media networks that for generations have efficiently moved news around the world wirelessly in seconds. They could have but didn’t because they had made no plans to do so.

And as far as we can tell, they still haven’t. Millions have been spent on high-tech solutions – new buoys, new computers, new this and new that. There are new SOPs for connecting with media in the United States, but we’ve seen no evidence of new procedures to use the news media to reach people in the tsunami-prone regions where hundreds of thousands died three years ago.

Anyone interested in reading more about all of this can start with last year’s second anniversary post and continue with our first post on January 2, 2005 and subsequent entries.

If a producer of “The Wave That Shook the World” happens to be reading this, please relegate your 2005/6/7 editions of the program to the history shelf. A fresh look at this tragedy is long past due.

We already know the terrible truth of 2004. Next time, we hope you’ll have found reasons to report on new initiatives that will use 21st century communications to warn unsuspecting people of their peril from the next big wave with the potential to shake the world.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Report Says Women More Vulnerable in Crises

We've not posted to Tsunami Lessons for more than four months -- in part because we believe the Seinfeld script excerpt post in June does such a good job in explaining one aspect of the tsunami warning problem.

But it's time to move on, and we do so today by noting a report at the OneWorld South Asia website and an article headlined Disaster Lessons from the past. Here are a few sentences:

When natural disasters occur, poor people, and specifically poor women are usually the hardest hit. It is estimated that in the 2004 tsunami three times as many women as men died. One of the reasons why more women perish is their decreased mobility since they often have not only themselves to take care of, but also children and the elderly. Due to socially constructed roles, most have never learned how to swim.

Continuing:

The medium through which information is passed is vitally relevant. A study found that women farmers in South Africa preferred seasonal climate forecast information to be relayed by extension workers or through schools rather than the radio, which was the preferred medium of men. Men have greater access as well as more time to listen to radios.


This article is thought-provoking and raises numerous issues about how to communicate life-saving information equitably among all segments of populations that are endangered by natural disasters. Contact information is available on the OneWorld site for those who wish to follow up.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Anybody Can Monitor Earthquakes and Tsunamis; The Trick Is Telling the Public What You Know

JERRY SEINFELD: I don't understand, I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?
RENTAL CAR AGENT: Yes, we do. Unfortunately we ran out of cars.
JERRY: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.
RENTAL CAR AGENT: I know why we have reservations.
JERRY: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation, and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Who would have thought a 16-year-old Seinfeld script would be relevant to today’s tsunami-related news, but there it is – a workable metaphor about tsunami detection and warning. First, the news:

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Tsunami experts, state representatives and National Guard members toured the tsunami warning center in Jakarta today, which has transformed over the past two years into a state-of-the-art, 24-hour facility.

The December 2004 tsunami rocked Indonesia, killing more than 120,000 residents and spurring a concerted effort to concentrate on tsunami preparedness. Countries around the world pledged their support, while Hawai'i experts also offered up their knowledge.

Hawai'i has one of the most sophisticated tsunami warning systems in the world.

Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, said he has had a host of discussions with Indonesians since 2004 to get their country tsunami-ready. He said the tsunami center in Jakarta is now well on its way to becoming a world-class facility. Still, he added, "Indonesia has a big challenge in front of it."


That’s a challenge Hawaii’s PTWC arguably has yet to overcome, as we’ve suggested here for more than two years. The Center reportedly does an excellent job of monitoring earthquakes – the “taking reservations” part – but it’s with the “holding/warning” follow-up that the Center fails to do its most important job.

It’s darkly ironic that the PTWC is Indonesia’s source of professionalism in the creation of its own tsunami warning center. Even though the Hawaii Center’s personnel suspected a tsunami had been generated in December 2004, they didn’t do anything with that knowledge to save Indonesian lives. (See numerous posts since January 2005 for additional comment.)

They “took the reservation” but they didn’t “hold the reservation.” They kept the information they knew about the Indonesian earthquake so close to their collective vests that they didn’t successfully communicate what they knew to populations in peril throughout the Indian Ocean region.

Let’s hope McCreery and his fellow U.S. experts have conveyed to their Indonesian counterparts the importance of effective public communications. It’s one thing to install millions of dollars of earthquake-detecting equipment in Jakarta; it’s quite another to implement a quick-reaction warning system using local media to alert the public to a suspected tsunami.

Unless there’s a way to warn the public, all that equipment is a waste.
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Click here to visit CHORE -- Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies -- for occasional posts on the status and adequacy of emergency communications in Hawaii.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rename the PTWC To Be Accurate; Call It the ‘United States Tsunami Warning Center’

(This is a "two-blog" post; it’s also found today at our sister blog, CHORE – Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies.)

Yet another tsunami has killed Pacific islanders, but at least America was well informed about the status of the threat. “The system worked,” said a Hawaii Civil Defense official in praise of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center’s network of buoys and seismographs.

Can it truly be said “the system worked” when people die? Are we so concerned about our own safety that we applaud a system that was incapable of warning unsuspecting islanders that they were in imminent danger of losing their lives?

Wanted: A Vision

How appropriate to quote Solomon in Proverbs as we look for lessons in the Solomon Islands tsunami:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

What might the vision be for a tsunami warning network that actually saves lives? The current version demonstrably doesn’t do that. More than 230,000 people died in the December 2004 tsunami; at least 30 died in the Solomons, and the toll is rising.

Clearly, the way the network is put together doesn’t work if “work” is defined as being a life-saver. So let’s give the vision thing a try.

Start with a goal: An effective tsunami warning network will be structured and operated in such a way that lives will not be lost – even in a locally generated tsunami.

Apply that goal to all high-threat islands, countries and territories in the Pacific where we know with certainty killer tsunamis are generated. Analyze the existing warning capabilities – sirens, radio stations, networks. Test their reaction time.

Does the System Work?

Analyze the test results. What worked and what didn’t? Is there any possible way the existing system can warn people that a locally generated tsunami may kill them?

If not, change the system!

Argue, debate and harangue local authorities until they agree to relinquish their control of the system; holding on isn’t worth the potential loss of their citizens’ lives.

Work with the United Nations. Establish funding for system enhancements. Install a fast-alert capability that sounds sirens and scrambles radio station personnel within minutes when a threat is recognized. Set a threshold that seems reasonable – perhaps a magnitude 7.5 quake in a region that historically experiences tsunamis.

Whatever you do, NOAA, do something! The current system is not working for Pacific Islanders – so don’t call it a Pacific Tsunami Warning system.

Be honest and rename the center in Hawaii to reflect its true function. Call it the United States Tsunami Warning Center. That’s what it does well – alerts and warns the states and territories of the United States.

But don’t pretend to be a Pacific-wide life-saving tsunami warning system. Your current vision isn’t big or bold enough.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Information Still Sparse on Solomon Tsunami; Were Media Used for Time-Sensitive Warning?

News reports are short on details about the timing of the tsunami that followed the magnitude 8 earthquake in the Solomon Islands yesterday.

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (AP) -- Tsunami waves churned by an undersea earthquake crashed ashore in the Solomon Islands on Monday, wiping away entire villages and triggering alerts from Australia to Hawaii, officials said. At least 13 people were killed, and the prime minister warned that the toll would likely grow. In the South Pacific nation's west, where the devastation appeared centered, there were reports of people being swept away as waves plowed up to a half-mile inland. The magnitude-8 quake that created the tsunami was followed by more than two dozen aftershocks, including at least four of magnitude-6 or stronger.

The tsunami presumably came so quickly -- one report says only 5 minutes after the quake -- that islanders had little time to escape the waves. The questions that interest us here at Tsunami Lessons are these:

• When did islanders receive media reports – i.e., radio broadcasts – about the quake’s severity and the likelihood of a tsunami?

• Which radio outlets – local or international – carried reports of the quake, and when?


It’s one thing to issue warnings and alerts via electronic means, including email, and it’s another thing altogether to issue warnings that result in lives saved. This has been our consistent message since the onset of this blog on January 2, 2005 following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami one week earlier.

Unless a warning can be effectively communicated by electronic news media to populations in peril, the warning has accomplishing virtually nothing.

We’ll be looking for reports from the region to learn more about the sequence of events. Here’s one of the early versions of what happened taken from an Associated Press report:

“There wasn’t any warning – the warning was the earth tremors,” Alex Lokopio, the premier of the Solomon’s Western Province, told New Zealand’s National Radio. “It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up.”

It's possible no broadcast message could have reached the island in time to warn the residents, but we don’t yet know for sure. We need to know when the first tsunami alert/warning went out from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and when they were recycled into the first warning broadcasts. What did radio stations in the Solomons do with the warning they presumably received?

All we have to go on is this assessment: “There wasn’t any warning….”

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Tsunami Awareness Month Begins with No Jokes; New PTWC Technology Touted as Enhancement

"One goal of the improved instruments is to avoid having too many warnings, which erodes confidence in the system, McCreery said. 'The gap is really trying to keep the public prepared to do the right thing when the situation occurs.'"

That paragraph is the final one in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story today on new instruments installed at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. The irony should be obvious to anyone familiar with the complete absence of a useful warning after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. (New visitors to Tsunami Lessons might want to start reading on this subject at our first post on January 2, 2005, "No Tsunami Warning -- Why?")

Tomorrow's second part of this two-part series is titled "Getting the public to respond to tsunamis" -- potentially another irony-laden angle in light of the 2004 tsunami warning failure.

Our observations are long overdue here on improvements made in NOAA's standard operating procedures to disseminate tsunami warnings using the news media -- the #1 subject we've flogged for the past two years. Enough has been written about these improvements in the past few months to conclude that NOAA has indeed restructured its early-warning procedures to engage the news media earlier than ever.

For now, we'll wait for more news during Tsunami Awareness Month to see how the PTWC actually will use its new technology to accomplish its mission -- which is to warn.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

“Live from the PTWC”: Warning Center Goes Media Mainstream During Tsunami Watch

Wait a minute. Is this the same Pacific Tsunami Warning Center that is “not allowed” to use the media’s international news dissemination networks to issue urgent, time-sensitive tsunami warnings? (See two years of posts here if you want details of how that could work.)

Yes, this is definitely the same PTWC – the same building with the same personalities. But talk about a flip-flop.

Even as a tsunami watch was in effect and Center staffers were assessing the potential for an actual tsunami to arrive after the 8.2 Kuril Islands earthquake last night, at least two Honolulu TV stations were sending “live” reports to its viewers by reporters standing just a few feet away from the computers. Today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin carries a photo taken last night inside the Center.

The message was clear: The PTWC was on the job, ready to tell the world USING CONSUMER-ACCESSIBLE NEWS MEDIA whether a tsunami had been generated.

Emphasis was added to the previous sentence to hammer home the point: PTWC officials now use garden-variety news media to inform the public, something they failed to do in December 2004 when hundreds of thousands died in the Indian Ocean region.

This blog takes some satisfaction at the PTWC’s turnabout; maybe two years of criticism about its hands-off media policy is doing some good, but it’s hard not to be cynical about the new accessibility, which seems designed to maximize the Center’s public relations.

As we asked here nearly two years ago, “…if the media can be used to transmit PTWC’s story all over the world, shouldn’t they have a role in transmitting tsunami warnings, too? Can it be, as suggested by the Center's director last week (see March 26 posts), that the PTWC is prohibited from engaging the media more energetically?”

Cynicism aside, engaging the media for PR spin may actually help NOAA, the NWS and the PTWC appreciate how the international media can be used to quickly transmit messages to their clientele and the public.

Call it PR with a positive purpose.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Blog's 2nd Anniversary Notes PTWC "Rethinking"

The Tsunami Lessons blog was launched two years ago today with a question: "No Tsunami Warning -- Why?" Whether it has influenced improved distribution of tsunami warnings using the major news media is still highly doubtful. We've seen little sympathy to the views expressed here for the past two years.

Nevertheless, there's hope for new ways of thinking. Today's Honolulu Advertiser carries a story that highlights the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's "rethinking" of how it will trigger tsunami warnings within the Hawaiian Islands.

Our sister blog, Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE), notes today that the rethinking is encouraging because it shows Center officials can change. As we say at CHORE today, "One would think a quarter million or more deaths in the region would have triggered a major pragmatic rethinking of how the Center distributes its warnings to populations in peril."

We hope a year from now we'll be able to report with confidence that warning procedures have indeed improved and that low-tech media networks will play a significant role in those new procedures.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Two Years after Quake, Rationalization Still Primary Way to Deal with the Terrible Truth: Nothing Scientists Did that Day Saved Lives

The great Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated villages, cities and whole populations the day after Christmas two years ago. As with most calamities in which the number of deaths was high, the world pauses to remember, as does today’s Tsunami Lessons post.

The Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA show on December 19th was devoted to the documentary “Wave that Shook the World”, and like most documentaries, this one relies on interviews with scientists, seismologists, geologists and others who recalled the events of that day.

Reading the transcript of the show is disappointing for those of us who believe tens of thousands of lives were needlessly lost due to lack of forethought by tsunami warning planners about how they would issue a warning to populations in peril if a massive earthquake were to generate a tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The Tsunami Was Not a Surprise


There’s no question the threat was well known. In the NOVA documentary, Australian seismologist Phil Cummins says: “In retrospect, the scientific community should have been aware that these massive earthquakes do occur off Sumatra, and probably a little more emphasis should have been focused on the Indian Ocean, where it's documented that massive earthquakes occur.”

On January 8, 2005, this blog documented that knowledge by calling attention to the report of The International Coordinating Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific’s October 2003 convention in Wellington, New Zealand. Page 30 of the convention’s report has the following about the potential for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean:

“Due to its tectonic setting which is located at the junction of three major plates of the Pacific, Eurasian and Indo-Australian, and one minor plate of the Philippines, Indonesia has a high activity in earthquakes and tsunamis. Historical data show that many tsunamis in Indonesia are destructives (sic) and have affected neighboring countries such as Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, etc.”

Page 48 of the document says: "...the Southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis...."

These references establish what science knew about the tsunami potential in the region. Let’s turn now to what scientists and warning planners did with that knowledge. The available evidence suggests they did little or nothing to prepare for the day when millions of people would require a warning to save their lives.

International Media – A Warning Solution

We continue to draw attention to this issue, not to “blame” those who did not implement a warning to cover the Indian Ocean nations, but because tsunami warning planners and seismologists continue to avoid serious discussions about using the international news media to issue tsunami warnings in extraordinarily urgent situations.

Beginning with our first post on January 2, 2005, the Tsunami Lessons blog has advocated what to us is an obvious solution to the problem of sending messages to distant and isolated populations.

The Associated Press, Reuters, the BBC, CNN and other worldwide news networks do this routinely – day in and day out without interruption. They operate efficiently and professionally. Some of these networks have existed, not just for scores of years, but for generations.

Why Are the Media Ignored?

The international news networks were not a component of the tsunami warning plan on Christmas 2004, and they’re not in the plan today. It’s noteworthy that not once in the past two years has anyone refuted our premise that existing worldwide news networks could have been effectively used -- and could be used in the future -- in extraordinary circumstances.

We would have been happy to debate the point if an authoritative source within the tsunami warning community had come forward at any time during the past two years, but they haven’t. It’s as if the straightforward, workable and relatively simple method of cooperating with the media to issue tsunami warnings in extraordinary circumstances doesn’t merit their attention.

The reason why scientists have avoided this discussion may be their high-tech orientation; people whose lives revolve around scientific solutions may be unable to even conceive of a low-tech solution to the challenge of sending tsunami warnings quickly to far-away locations.

It’s a Policy Matter

The current crop of tsunami experts, seismologists and agency administrators may be so wedded to their high-cost exotic warning systems that they ignore the electromagnetic spectrum that bombards them with low-tech radio and television signals non-stop around the clock.

Incredible as it may seem, the news networks are ignored even after the 2004 tsunami tragedy because of a U.S. policy that prohibits scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) from contacting the media directly by telephone. Dr. Charles McCreery made this astounding statement during our visit to the PTWC on March 25, 2005; our post on that visit was the first to report this prohibition.

Sound Bites Reveal a Pattern

As you read the documentary’s transcript, keep this blog’s pro-media arguments in mind; remember also that scientists knew of the tsunami threat that major earthquakes pose for the Indian Ocean region. Read their quotes for any indication they used that knowledge on Christmas Day 2004; assess from their own words what they were capable of doing to respond quickly with life-saving warnings to the region through tested networks.

From the “Wave that Shook the World” transcript:

BARRY HIRSHORN (PTWC seismologist): “No contact points, no organization, no warning systems that I know of, in the area. Picking up the phone and thumbing through the phone book or thumbing through the Web is useless. In fact, it can be dangerous because you're not concentrating on warning someone who can actually do something for the people. So we're brainstorming basically, ‘Who can we call?’”

STUART WEINSTEIN (geophysicist, PTWC): “We then created a tsunami travel time map for the Indian Ocean basin. This gave us an idea of how much time we had in order to warn people. It told us where the wave was presently. And then, immediately, we started to try to contact nations that were ahead of the wave.”

NARRATOR: “Less than four hours since the earthquake: the Maldives are next in the tsunami's path of destruction. With the wave charging across the ocean at the speed of a passenger jet, it seems like a losing battle, but using their travel time map, scientists at the Warning Center realize there's still time to alert Africa.”

CHARLES MCCREERY (director, PTWC): “We contacted our State Department, and we advised them that this was a very large earthquake and there was the possibility of tsunami waves striking the east coast of Africa.”

BARRY HIRSHORN: “The State Department operations immediately patched us through to the embassies of Madagascar and Mauritius and we gave them a warning.”

STUART WEINSTEIN: “...their embassies in East Africa. We also contacted people in positions of authority to try to get some sort of warning to the east Africa coast.”

These quotes describe the frenetic and fruitless efforts of these scientists to issue a life-saving warning, as described by a reporter for the Chicago Tribune two weeks after the quake:

"Chicago -- With a killer tsunami bearing down on Sri Lanka and India at airliner speeds, an effort to save thousands of lives came down to a handful of overworked employees in Hawaii trying to telephone government officials they did not know and did not know how to reach."

Coping Becomes Rationalization

Despite their best intentions, PTWC scientists live today with the knowledge that nothing they did that day saved more than perhaps a handful of lives on the east coast of Africa -- and certainly none in Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. Living with this knowledge must be difficult for those who interpreted the data as it arrived at the warning center; they suspected the tsunami could be a killer but did not possess the tools or contacts to send a warning.

We are sympathetic to their plight. This blog is not written by a psychologist, but even an amateur observer can conclude that the stress felt by these scientists has been traumatic and that one way for them to cope with their inability to help anyone that day would be to conclude that “nothing could have been done” to save those people.

We heard that in the days immediately following the quake, and we continue to hear it today.

Indeed, it appears that they did everything they could do with the tools they had in 2004. Two years ago, there were no protocols in place to distribute a warning directly to mass audiences. No discussions had been held with high-level news executives to establish the relationships and bona fides necessary to trigger an alert that could save thousands of lives.

But what about now? Why aren’t officials of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration talking with international news organizations to explore how their networks could be used in extraordinary circumstances, such as the Indian Ocean mega-earthquake? Why does every new initiative to improve the warning capability involve years of planning and major financial commitments by nations with few financial resources?

Those high-tech systems are worthwhile, of course, but to ignore the low-tech, boundary- and bureaucracy-indifferent news networks is no longer acceptable.

Learning from the Past

One week after the 2004 tsunami, Tsunami Lessons posted a report by National Public Radio science correspondent Christopher Joyce, who began his story on the PTWC’s response: “Seismologists have wired the earth. They listen constantly for vibrations from earthquakes.”

So, too, have the news networks wired the earth. They listen and inform using their satellite and land-line networks, bringing distant news events into homes in every nation so routinely that the world seems smaller because they exist.

Two years after thousands died due to a failure to communicate, American scientists and policymakers could advance their tsunami warning capabilities by opening a dialogue with the news networks. There's nothing stopping them from trying to devise a better system but their own policies and inertia.

The world shouldn't have to wait.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Scientists Warn of Possible Indonesian Tsunami; Alerts to Public Still Depend on Intermediaries

Click here for Tsunami Lesson's first post on January 2, 2005 to understand what got us started.

The Honolulu Advertiser carries an online story today on scientists' conclusion that the Indonesian area is hit by tsunamis every 30 years or so. (I think we have to disregard the specific reference to "230 years" as a typo and rely on other statements that specifically reference three decades.)

Of particular interest to the Tsunami Lessons blog is the story's final paragraph:

"Until the regional tsunami warning capability is established, NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and the Japan Meteorological Agency are providing tsunami advisory and watches alerts to 27 Indian Ocean countries. The individual countries then determine if and how they issue a warning to their publics."

Back in March 2005, this blog surmised that the "control issue" may be the biggest obstacle to transmitting warnings quickly enough to do any good. This new report reaffirms our nearly two-year-old belief that routing warnings through all the nations' independent offices will be the equivalent of "snail mail" compared to using the mass media to send life-saving alerts.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Even California Couldn’t Send Appropriate Warning of Tsunami’s Damage Potential

Q. Why is a tsunami warning like the kids’ game of Telephone?

A. Because the person at the end of the line often fails to receive the right message.

Once again, officials are asking why a tsunami advisory failed to adequately warn people it was supposed to help.

The San Francisco Chronicle has reported extensively on the November 15th communications failure when a tsunami generated near Japan smashed boats and piers in Crescent City, CA. Folks in that tsunami-prone community were never told of the waves’ potential to create havoc.

Our sister blog, Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE), advocates greater citizen involvement in the emergency communications process.

Average citizens seemingly can’t do worse than the experts in devising ways to communicate crucial information to people who need it. The linked story in the Chronicle (above) notes that "...for some reason, the (state Emergency Services) office failed to send a fax to DelNorte County" about the potential damage that the approaching tsunami could cause.

In other words, just like in December 2004, officials knew something bad was afoot but just couldn't quite get the word out to people with a crucial need to know.

Since January 2, 2005, this blog has advocated using the broadcast media as the fastest way to alert populations at risk. So here's a idea for the experts:

Show some faith in the population's ability to process information without panicking. Put your advisories on the air. Make them clear, concise and compelling without making them alarming.

Don't worry that we'll accuse you of crying wolf. We won't! It's better to be prepared for an event and have it pass without incident than to be surprised by something we knew nothing about.

It's only common sense.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hawaii Tsunami Was Real, but Some Surfers Showed How Unreal Their Reaction Was

Here’s a Tsunami Lessons first – a parallel post from our other blog.

Tsunami Event Passes with Few Consequences,
Confirms Belief that Some People Are Stupid

The initial assessments of yesterday’s mini-tsunami event compliment the first responders for their measured efforts to alert the public. The absence of any significant damage and injuries validated their decision to not activate the siren system.

Aside from some minor scrapes among a few swimmers who ignored warnings to stay out of the water, this tsunami had no serious consequences. The biggest take-away may be that despite all that’s been done to educate the public about what not to do when a tsunami approaches, some people will do it anyway.

Officials may have to acknowledge that they can’t change those people.

Some Civil Defense staffers expressed concern in media reports that if they sound an alarm for what turns out to be a non-event, the “cry wolf” syndrome will desensitize the public to future earthquakes and tsunamis.

CHORE strongly encourages these officials to set aside that concern and concentrate on the needs of sensible people – the vast majority of us who occupy the middle of the bell curve. The loonies who want to “ride a tsunami” are probably beyond hope, and the rest of us will appreciate your efforts.

Continue educating the public, keep fine-tuning your alert system and rehearsing the broadcast industry on emergency procedures. When the “big one” does arrive and sweeps tsunami-riding surfers away, it won't be because you didn't do your jobs.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Close to Home: Hawaii Officials Say Warning Gaps Exist but Won't Say Where

You have to love the government -- "always there to help" when you need it, we're told.

Read this and then see what you think.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

In Hawaii, the Warning Issue Has a New Twist: Silence during a Non-Tsunami Event

The 6.7 and 6.0 earthquakes near the Big Island of Hawaii on Octdober 15, 2006 resulted in an unusual response by the Hawaii Civil Defense crew regarding a potential tsunami threat.

Although they knew a tsunami was not suspected within minutes of the first quake, they decided not to tell the public there was no tsunami. Rather than relieve fears during the island-wide power blackout that dragged on forever on Oahu, they chose to reveal nothing.

One official was reported in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as saying people might catch only the end of the emergency alert and misconstrue it to be a confirmation of a tsunami.

That's bizarre. On the chance that some people might get the wrong idea, don't tell anybody anything.

Next time, try a looped tape that says, "There is no tsunami... There is no tsunami... There is no tsunami........"

The Tsunami Lessons author has started a new blog, again with the best of intentions, called Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies (CHORE). Too many officials' comments since the Hawaii earthquakes make it clear average citizens have a role to play in improving emergency communications here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

New Strategy: BLAME THE MEDIA! Flummoxed Officials Clueless on Using Radio, TV for Tsunami Warnings; Reporters Let Them Get Away with It!

In keeping with the 2006 pattern to post fewer comments here but (hopefully) make the same point more economically, this is the first post on the TsunamiLessons blog since the July 17th killer tsunami that took hundreds of lives in Indonesia.

Once again, to no real surprise, the media were filled with reports on the failure of the warning system to alert the population in peril before it was too late. Here’s a sample from New Delhi Television Limited:

July 19, 2006 (Pangandaran): “Hundreds of bodies have been recovered from beaches, homes and hotels ravaged by the second tsunami to hit Indonesia in two years, pushing the death toll to more than 340. Nearly 230 others were missing. Meanwhile, the government acknowledged Tuesday it received regional warnings about the impending disaster but did not relay them to threatened communities along Java island's southern coast. Even if it had tried to tell local authorities, it is unclear how the alerts would have reached residents or tourists. There are no warning sirens or alarms.”

This is the same story, with different datelines and word combinations, that we’ve seen repeatedly since the December 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. As the story above notes, disaster officials blame the lack of life-saving warnings on the absence of sirens and alarms.

But a second reading of that paragraph reveals something significant: It wasn’t an official who made the assertion; it was the journalist who wrote the copy for this story. In other words, the journalist – without attribution – concluded that the absence of warning sirens or alarms made it “unclear how the alerts would have reached residents or tourists.” The media have bought the spin – hook, line and sinker.

It’s pretty clear by now that government officials won’t change their behavior and reveal in public that they could have done more to save lives after this or that tsunami. Read all the posts on TsunamiLessons and you’ll come across their “we did everything we could” excuses time and again. They are what they are, so let’s not waste any more time on them.

We have to turn elsewhere and try a new tack. It’s time to work on the media. Hell, let’s BLAME the media for their collective incompetence in simply accepting the official explanation over and over that nothing could have been done to save those lives. Reporters everywhere have accepted these weak explanations without seemingly giving them a second thought.

On the off chance that journalists in tsunami-prone countries might just read these words, here’s a transcript of an apocryphal future post-tsunami press conference that might help journalists dig into the story:

Government Disaster Minister: “…and so, in conclusion, let me express the government’s sincere regret for the terrible loss of life we’ve suffered on our nation’s beaches and ocean-side villages. We did everything we could, but without warning sirens and alarms, we just could not alert the victims in time to do any good.”

Newspaper Journalist: “Excuse me, Minister, but the excuse you’ve just used rings hollow. It has been nearly two years since the December 2004 tsunami, and your government has failed to install a warning system in all of that time. Why?”

Minister: “Well, these systems are extremely expensive and difficult to come by. We’ve commissioned a thorough study of our warning requirements and expect to receive a recommendation from the study commission any month now.”

Journalist: “Following up on my first question, why is it taking so long? What is delaying the government’s official response? Hundreds died this weekend because you have not installed a warning system!”

Minister: “Your question is impertinent! Your tone accuses the government – accuses me! – of needless delay. I’ve told you that we are working as quickly as we can, but without a siren network, whose funds have not been appropriated by Parliament, by the way, we are powerless to alert the population.”

Radio Journalist: “Minister, are you unaware that my radio network broadcasts news and information programming 24 hours a day? Are you unaware that many of our affiliates are equipped and professionally conditioned to broadcast breaking news instantaneously? Are you unaware that according to our country’s most recent census, fully 92 percent of the population owns or has access to a radio? Do these facts mean anything to you?”

Minister: “No, and why should they? What are you suggesting – that people should receive tsunami warnings over the radio?”

Radio Journalist: “That is precisely what I am suggesting!”

Minister: “But that is impossible! There would be no way to control the message, no way to verify that a tsunami actually had been generated, no way to avoid needless panic among the population.”

Wire Service Journalist: “Minister, you already said more than 700 of our fellow citizens died on Sunday because they received no tsunami warning. Wouldn’t it be better to issue a radio warning readily accessible to the public and accept the risk that it might be premature or even inaccurate? Wouldn’t THAT be better than refusing to engage the broadcast media and let people die!?”

Government press assistant: “Thank you. This press conference is concluded.”

With apologies to fiction writers, this little drama is meant to suggest that journalists have a role they’ve heretofore shunned. Inquiring and inquisitive reporters in real life presumably could be as demanding of answers as the fictional trio above.

But have you seen any evidence of journalistic probing in your readings? No, because it’s not happening. From Washington to Honolulu to Jakarta, reporters do nothing more than hold their microphones and take their notes as government officials absurdly assert that there's no way to alert populations without building elaborate early-warning siren systems.

So, here’s a toast – to the first reporter who raises his or her hand at some future press conference anywhere around the Pacific Rim and asks impertinent questions.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Another Quake, Another Suspected Tsunami, Another Warning System Lapse; Tonga Confirms Media Must Be Built into News-Based Alert Plan

The length of today’s post will compensate for the infrequent postings here in 2006. Tsunami warning preparedness and execution has been a media focus in the past three weeks as “major” earthquakes in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean tested new procedures at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) here in Hawaii.

Despite the Center’s new 24/7 working hours and SOPs, things didn’t go as planned, and populations that should have received a warning of the tsunami potential remained ignorant of their potential peril. More on that below.

This web log’s premise is that a tsunami warning system missing proactive, human-to-human contact with the major international news media has a weak link in its chain. The BBC, CNN, Reuters and the Associated Press all have well-tested, efficient and rapid-fire international networks that dispense news around the world within seconds. (Click here to access this blog’s earliest posts dating to January 3, 2005 on the media’s potential role to transmit timely tsunami warnings to their international audiences.)

Mission: Contact Offices or Save Lives?

It’s a given in the news business that the ultimate consumer of broadcast and cablecast news is the individual viewer or listener. That also would seem to be the logical mission of the PTWC – to alert individuals of a potential tsunami. Yet that apparently is not how the PTWC and its parent organizations – the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – see it.

All three entities persist in thinking they’ve done their jobs if tsunami warning bulletins arrive in a timely fashion at their sister agencies in American states or foreign countries – the civil defense and national disaster offices and equivalents.

One would think the 2004 tsunami experience would have shattered that mindset in light of the “office-to-office” model’s failure to save a single life. It has been documented repeatedly since the deadly tsunami that PTWC scientists had no procedure in place to alert individual men, women and children on Indian Ocean beaches that their lives were at risk.

Post-Tsunami Stories Exposed Plan’s Flaws

A March 29, 2005 NOVA broadcast on PBS revealed the lack of preparedness within the PTWC to achieve its presumed mission of alerting individuals. The focus then – and now – was on alerting offices, as revealed in a quote attributed to a PTWC scientist on duty that day:

No contact points, no organization, no warning systems that I know of, in the area. Picking up the phone and thumbing through the phone book or thumbing through the Web is useless. In fact, it can be dangerous because you're not concentrating on warning someone who can actually do something for the people. So we're brainstorming basically, “Who can we call?"

Who the PTWC could have called, of course, was the handful of major news media operations cited above – each with a global network that reaches into the Indian Ocean region around the clock every day of the year. No such media-contact protocol was in place, as a New York Times story on December 31, 2004 revealed in remarks attributed to the same scientist:

Their instinct was to somehow tell more, to warn the region that it would continue, to reach people who could clear beaches. But how? Mr. Hirshorn recalled a tsunami expert he knew in Australia, called and got an answering machine. He left a message. Someone phoned the International Tsunami Information Center, asking if they knew people in the stricken region. The center simply had no contacts in this distant world.

Note the wording of the first sentence above: “…to reach people who could clear beaches.” The focus was reaching the officials who could clear beaches -- a half-way measure that relies on people who may or may not be on the job. And in the many months since the Christmas 2004 tsunami, there have been few quotes from scientists suggesting they believe their mission is ensuring that the people ON THE BEACHES receive the warnings. The buck always stops with officials in the PTWC’s network of agencies and government offices.

Have Lessons of 2004 Actually Been Learned?


The scientists themselves probably shouldn’t be faulted for following a failed emergency warning model. Others at NOAA or NWS could have modified that model with some “what if” outside-the-box thinking to expose the missing link in the system that’s supposed to warn individuals and save lives.

But what about now, nearly 18 months after tsunami lessons presumably were learned? Fast forward to the recent tsunami episodes. Here are excerpts from an Associated Press story about what happened to the tsunami alert following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake near Tonga on May 3:

A powerful earthquake struck near the South Pacific nation of Tonga early Thursday, triggering tsunami warnings for as far away as Fiji and New Zealand. But word of the imminent danger never reached the tiny country closest to the epicenter….

But nearly 18 months after an earthquake-driven tsunami in the Indian Ocean left at least 216,000 people dead or missing, sparking international calls for a better warning system, Pacific islanders received little or no notice of Thursday's threat….

Tonga did not receive the alert because of a power failure there, said the center's acting director, Gerard Fryer. "There was problem in Tonga where there was a power outage and they didn't get our initial message," Fryer said, adding that the center needs to work with Tonga to correct the problem. He said he did not know whether the power failure was caused by the earthquake.


The “power failure” explanation stood for several days, but then the PTWC revealed that the Center itself hadn’t performed as intended:

…Tonga... was inadvertently left off a list of areas predicted to be hit by a possible tsunami following the latest earthquake. The communication failure raised troubling questions about the effectiveness of such alerts, which have come under global scrutiny since an earthquake-driven tsunami in the Indian Ocean nearly 18 months ago left at least 216,000 people dead or missing.


Power outages, human error….”if something can go wrong, it will,” the saying goes. Another saying – my friends have heard it too often – is that “the Universe makes no mistakes.” Maybe it was no mistake that weak links in the warning chain were revealed in an earthquake/tsunami episode that inflicted no human suffering.

Media Channel Credited with Warning

Two items of note from the recent earthquake: First, here’s the same scientist referenced in the stories above as quoted in an MSNBC story after the Tonga quake:

“If people don’t get it (the warning), it’s not worth anything, but we don’t have people in every country who can help keep their sirens running and their power running. It’s frustrating.”

Let's hope by "people" he means the end user, not those hard-to-reach officials we've heard so much about. Second, buried in yet another story about the Tonga quake were three sentences that should be required reading for all PTWC, NOAA and NWS policy-making officials:

In Fiji, a tsunami warning alarm sounded in the capital, Suva. But authorities apparently failed to inform citizens, many on tiny and remote islands with poor communications. At the Wakaya Club, a private luxury Fijian island resort where recent guests have included Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards, staff were alerted to the danger through satellite television news.

That last part is worth repeating: …staff were alerted to the danger through satellite television news.

Satellite television news -- not government officials -- told people on remote beaches that a tsunami might have been generated. And if a power outage had interrupted the TV news, battery-powered radios monitoring overseas broadcasts just as easily could have been the channel.

The Tonga experience was yet another wake-up call for NOAA, the NWS and the PTWC. It may not be pleasant for public affairs personnel (who should appreciate the media’s importance) to go up against senior officials to whom “control of the message” seems more important than warning efficiency. The challenge will be even greater to convince officials of foreign governments that it’s more important to warn their citizens than it is to maintain control of the message.

But Tonga’s lesson is obvious: The message must get through as quickly and efficiently as possible to people, not only offices. The media do that routinely through thick and thin – through power outages and contact-list mistakes and offices that don’t answer the telephone and officials who oversleep.

I don't think NOAA is asleep, but it definitely needs to brew some strong coffee and wake up to the need for change from within.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI

Friday, April 28, 2006

The More Things Change, The More They Don't; Last-Ditch Warning Still Relies on Phone Calls; Media Still Ignored as Quickest Way to Send Alert

This web log has been idle since January 2, 2006, the one-year anniversary of its start-up. Our post that day said much seemed to have been accomplished in 2005 to raise our tsunami watchers' awareness at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) of ways to improve the transmission of alerts to populations endangered by an approaching tsunami.

Our hope was that the new protocols enacted by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would reflect some outside-the-box thinking in how those alerts are proactively disseminated.

Why crank this blog up again today? Because the story in today's Honolulu Advertiser on the new operating protocols at the PTWC reveals that the staff still is not empowered to pick up the telephone and call the news media in a tsunami crisis.

Visitors to this blog can click on virtually any post in 2005 to find our theme -- that the failure of the PTWC to contact the major news media on December 25, 2004 (HST) with a tsunami alert contributed to many needless deaths in the Indian Ocean region. The record is clear that no such effort was made.

Why contact the major media? Because they've had worldwide communications networks in place for years, decades, generations. Because one phone call to a clued-in and rehearsed international desk at the Associated Press, Reuters, BBC or CNN could have conveyed life-saving messages on their networks and to their outlets in the imperiled region.

Here's the key paragraph from today's Advertiser story:

"It (the PTWC) also has e-mail systems in place to alert people of potential Indian Ocean tsunamis. To make sure people are seeing the bulletins, there is a list of English-speaking offices they can telephone in the region that are operated around the clock, LeDouce said."

Doesn't this system seem more than a little sketchy? What they've put in place is a 21st Century version of the "telephone" game with an e-mail twist.

First, let's say there are 15 countries in the path of the next killer earthquake and tsunami, which naturally will strike at the least convenient time when there's only a skeleton crew at the PTWC -- in the dead of night, one staffer unexpectedly out sick, one on vacation, etc. (Think Murphy's Law.) So maybe one staff person is supposed to call these 15 countries, one after the other, to be sure they've received and actually read the warning e-mail -- in addition to the scientific analysis that must be accomplished.

And if they don't get through for whatever reason -- what then? Or even if they do, has the warning actually reached the people with a need to know? No, it's reached an office, and by reaching an office, "mission accomplished" it isn't, because the mission of a warning center is to actually warn people at risk.

Is this plan smart? Is it modern? Does it reflect creative thinking, lessons learned, common sense?

Every NOAA and PTWC official lives in a radio universe, bombarded every second of their lives by frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum. It's safe to say every one of them relies on radio and television newscasts repeatedly each day. Every one of them would rather have access to radio and television bulletins about an approaching tornado or hurricane than sit by a telephone hoping for a call from Civil Defense.

It seems incredible that after all the discussion, critiques and after-action reports, NOAA and the PTWC still don't get it. They still refuse to acknowledge the potential for a telephone call to one or two major news networks to spread the word at the speed of light around the world and save lives.

Tsunami warning are meant for populations -- not offices! People rely on the broadcast and cablecast media for information, yet the media are virtually ignored as first-tier tools in the warning protocols.

On December 28, 2004, Chicago Tribune writer James Janega began his story on the tsunami warning fiasco:

"Chicago -- With a killer tsunami bearing down on Sri Lanka and India at airliner speeds, an effort to save thousands of lives came down to a handful of overworked employees in Hawaii trying to telephone government officials they did not know and did not know how to reach."

Sixteen months later, we're told the big safeguard in the PTWC's warning protocols is "a list of English-speaking offices they can telephone in the region that are operated around the clock."

"Sketchy" isn't the word for it.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI

Monday, January 02, 2006

Taking Stock of Tsunami Warning Capabilities After One Year of Writing About the Need

Today is the first anniversary of this web log’s initial post, which was headlined: “No Tsunami Warning – Why?” The question was prompted by an emerging awareness that the news media were not contacted proactively by scientists when they first detected the Indian Ocean earthquake and probable tsunami.

The next day, we asked: “What’s in the Communications Plan?” when innumerable news reports ignored the issue of why victims received no warning via existing high-speed communications networks (CNN, AP, BBC) before the waves struck many Indian Ocean nations. The January 7th post was topped: “More Critics Are Asking: Why Weren’t the News Media Called?” That question was asked repeatedly during the following months.

The Indian Ocean catastrophe shook up NOAA’s thinking about its role in the world. One example of the shift is that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center no longer sees events beyond the Pacific Rim as outside its area of interest and sphere of influence. The PTWC is working cooperatively more than ever with Indian Ocean nations after reevaluating its mission and retraining its personnel on appropriate action to take after major earthquakes are detected anywhere in the world.

New SOP in the Works

Today, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is implementing a new Standard Operating Procedure to activate warnings via the news media following major earthquakes that may trigger tsunamis. The SOP includes procedures not in place on December 26, 2004.

The West Coast Tsunami Warning of June 14, 2005 has been studied and evaluated for sufficiency, and an After Action Report on that warning contains numerous recommendations for changes in media notification procedures. NOAA’s National Weather Service will soon issue its assessment on the report.

From our perspective, much has been accomplished in the past year to make the world’s populations safer after mega-earthquakes and tsunamis. What remains to be accomplished, judging from the available evidence, is any high-level coordination by senior personnel at NOAA with the major media networks. Now that the PTWC and other warning centers have gone to an around-the-clock staffing model, it's only logical that the public affairs side of NOAA's house should reach out and proactively ensure that its links with the major media are solidified.

This blog will continue advocating for these contacts and will report on them if and when they occur.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI

Thursday, December 15, 2005

NOAA: It “Makes Sense” that Lives Could Have Been Saved with Proactive Warning to Media

Fifty weeks after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, it seems this web log’s message has gotten through, judging from a letter just received from NOAA public affairs chief Jordan St. John.

Responding to my posted comments on the agency’s new tsunami notification SOP, Mr. St. John says in a December 8 letter:

“This SOP was developed to accomplish dual purposes. The first and most important is to certainly assist in saving lives. You have taken the position that had a more proactive media outreach effort taken place during the Indian Ocean event, many lives could have been saved. In hindsight, that makes sense, but we also believe that until that fateful event, many in the media would not have taken the warning seriously.”

This blog also has taken the position from its inception that coordination with the news media most certainly would have to be accomplished to achieve life-saving warnings via their international networks. While I’ve criticized the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center for not engaging those media proactively on December 25th (Hawaii time), in hindsight it’s because they and others at NOAA apparently had not thought ahead to consider how important pre-coordination with the media might one day be. (That's why the many "we did everything we could" comments by Center personnel in the weeks after the tsunami were so objectionable. By not reaching out to the major news media that day, they hadn't done everything they could.)

It’s safe to say they see the importance now. Mr. St. John’s letter continues: “Today, because of this tragic event, the media are much more sensitized to the danger of tsunamis, and have reacted very quickly to the information issued by both Tsunami Warning Centers. We expect these procedures to improve.”

I dare say, NOAA and the Centers are themselves much more sensitized to the danger of not having a solid media-notification SOP in place – an SOP that has been coordinated and game-planned with the major news media to ensure they know how to react when a Center believes a devastating earthquake and tsunami event has occurred somewhere in the world.

Mr. St. John notes that “the SOP is designed to remove (the media-contact) burden from Center staff and place it on our public affairs staff that is better equipped to manage the media onslaught.” That makes sense, and there are parallels throughout the business world. Power grid operators don’t talk with inquiring reporters during a blackout; the utilities’ public affairs personnel do.

The key point that must not be lost, however, is that NOAA’s public affairs personnel must be brought into the loop IMMEDIATELY after a potential tsunami is detected, and they should be empowered to IMMEDIATELY contact the major media using rehearsed channels of communications.

We’re talking minutes here – those precious minutes when media with globe-circling communications networks can transmit, broadcast or cablecast their warning messages BEFORE tsunami waves arrive.

That obviously was not pre-coordinated last December, and it’s not at all clear that this coordination has yet happened. If not, NOAA should call CNN, the Associated Press, the BBC and other candidate media to begin a dialogue leading to a truly live-saving capability.

In less than two weeks the world's media will carry one-year anniversary stories about the tsunami tragedy. This blog was created and did most of its proselytizing early in 2005, anticipating the delayed acknowledgement that now seems to have come that more could and should have been done to save lives on December 26.

We’ll keep this communications channel open next year with the hope that there will be reason to comment about a new public-private tsunami warning collaborative -- freely entered by government agencies and public-spirited media -- that will be a credit to all concerned.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI

Thursday, December 08, 2005

New Tsunami Warning Procedures Appear To Be Improvement; Proactive Media Contact Is Still Goal

January 16, 2005 post on this web log: “If a mass media response had been written into NOAA’s crisis communication plan, one phone call to the Associated Press or CNN could have been leveraged to produce a warning to millions of people before the tsunami arrived on the beaches of some Indian Ocean countries.”

You won't find specific instructions for NOAA's personnel to reach out aggressively to the major news media in the new Tsunami Warning Center Communication SOP, which is found in its entirety here -- at least, not in the manner recommended by this blog since its inception and summarized in a January 16 post, above.

But according to a NOAA spokesperson, that's NOAA's goal, and things have changed since the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to improve media notification procedures. "December 26th was a wake-up call to the world," he remarked today during a telephone call about the new SOP and its ability to engage international news media in issuing timely life-saving tsunami warnings.

At the risk of coming down too severely on this draft SOP, here's one paragraph from the "Regional Public Affairs Officer(s) Responsibility" item (see earlier post today) and the comment sent today to NOAA about that paragraph:
• Write media advisory and distribute via PR newswire (see template; messages: reiterate warning; indicate media will be notified when more information becomes available; advise that briefing will take place once the danger passes/event occurs)
COMMENT: This is an entirely misguided approach. “…once the danger passes/event occurs…”??? Tsunami notification to the news media should not be business as usual via PR Newswire or something that waits for the danger to pass! When a potentially significant life-threatening event occurs, someone at the appropriate TWC has to trigger an alert in a duty officer’s or communication professional’s office or home; that person’s job is to initiate proactive media contact according to a prearranged protocol. If that means a Duty Officer must be on station at NOAA’s headquarters around the clock, so be it. You’re making those provisions at the TWCs, so it can be done for communications professionals. This is about establishing a system to save lives – potentially hundreds of thousands of them – so the system that’s implemented must be bold and imaginative and something far different than relying on PR Newswire as the channel to communicate these messages to the media.

Following the phone call with NOAA's spokesman,
I'm willing to concede that the comment above may have been a bit strong, but I believe it is still appropriate to keep the focus on NOAA's intentions vis-a-vis outreach to the major news media.

The NOAA spokesman said public affairs personnel already are assigned around the clock to be responsive to Tsunami Warning Center personnel, and they are prepared and rehearsed to reach out to appropriate news media -- especially local media when a local tsunami event is detected.

What remains to be coordinated, it appears, is a procedure that involves rapid notification to media with international communications capabilities whenever a huge December 26-like earthquake strikes anywhere in the world. Quakes of that magnitude in tsunami-prone regions of the planet ought to automatically kick in a procedure to inform the media that have global reach -- or so it seems to us.

According to NOAA's spokesman, the American Meteorological Society will hold a meeting in late January in Atlanta, GA, home city of one of those worldwide media companies, CNN. The spokesman said the meeting may be an opportunity to raise these issues with CNN executives, at least one of whom has expressed interest in the problems addressed by this blog since its inception.

'Veil of Secrecy' Lifted on New Tsunami Warning SOP; Draft (Posted Here) To Be Adopted Soon

NOAA Public Affairs representative Greg Romano today informed this writer that I'm free to publicize and comment upon the draft of NOAA's "Tsunami Warning Center Communications" Standard Operating Procedures. That draft is presented below; comments will be made in a subsequent post. ~DC
Draft *** Draft *** Draft *** Draft

Tsunami Warning Center Communication Procedures

I. Introduction

Whenever either of the two Tsunami Warning Centers issues a bulletin (warning, watch or informational) regarding potential tsunamigenic activity, the following procedures shall be used to coordinate response.

II. Tsunami Center Staff Communication Activity

The following relates specifically to media response ONLY. It does not pertain to any other procedures required of the Tsunami Warning Centers

• Notify by telephone the appropriate Regional Director

• Update voicemail to include brief information on event and direct media inquiries to regional public affairs (script to be provided and possibly have remote access for updates)

• Notify by e-mail/text message NWSH public affairs staff (Regional public affairs officers will also contact HWSH public affairs staff by telephone)

• TWCs shall focus on the event and answer public phone lines to which media have access as time allows.

III. Regional Director Responsibilities

• Notify Regional Public Affairs – if unavailable, notify NWSH Public Affairs

• Work with regional PAO to develop message points/liaison with TWC

• Participate in news briefings

• Conduct one-on-one media interviews in coordination with regional PAO

IV. Regional Public Affairs Officer(s) Responsibility

As soon as possible following issuance of a bulletin:

• Notify NWSH public affairs by telephone

• Write media advisory and distribute via PR newswire (see template; messages: reiterate warning; indicate media will be notified when more information becomes available; advise that briefing will take place once the danger passes/event occurs)

• Follow-up with phone to major media outlets in potentially impacted areas reiterating the content of the media advisory

• Ensure all media at the Tsunami Warning Center are confined to a designed location (i.e., a conference room) so as not to impede operations

As soon as possible when above is completed

• Arrange media briefing for post event/ dangers passes (drafts talking points, coordinates logistics)

V. Headquarters (NWS, OAR, NOS) Public Affairs Responsibilities

• Support/back-up regional PAOs as directed by NWSH public affairs director

• Pitch after event briefings/interviews with national and regional media using national spokespeople as necessary

Note: In the event of a destructive event, HQ PA will immediately send additional staff to assist regional PAOs on site.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Draft SOP for Notifying the News Media About Tsunamis Is in Circulation -- but Now What?

To give Jordan St. John of NOAA his due, his email transmitting the draft SOP for "Tsunami Warning Center Communication Procedures" has been sitting here in my in-box since November 17. As Mr. St. John noted in a September email, "the tsunami public affairs team has been developing a set of media notification and response procedures for the two NOAA tsunami centers."

But that note still gives pause: "I'd be happy to share the draft with you for comment, provided you not release nor comment on it publicly until the final procedure is put in place," he wrote.

I agreed to that restriction in order to receive the draft SOP, and I'm continuing to abide by it for now. I'll also provide Mr. St. John with my reaction to his new media-notification procedures.

But what's with the secrecy? Does NOAA really believe that restricting dissemination and comment on the draft will produce a better product in the end? What's the downside for public comment on a media-notification SOP for the tsunami warning centers?

What I can say at this time without violating our agreement is that Mr. St. John and his NOAA colleagues are encouraged to re-read some of the posts to this web log (if they've read any of them at all) -- especially the ones in the first quarter of 2005 that decried the lack of proactive warning center outreach to the news media with worldwide communications networks when a potential tsunami is detected.

My premise is stated time and again in this blog, so it should be easy to find -- a point of view that still seems not to be understood or appreciated by NOAA.

In addition to commenting on the SOP, I'll urge Mr. St. John to relax this prohibition and will leave the issue there for now.

Except for this: Has NOAA invited the international news organizations with instant communications capabilities to tsunami-threatened populations to comment on the SOP? I've asked that question of Mr. St. John and others at NOAA without receiving a response.

If no such sharing has occurred, this SOP has more problems than are already evident to me.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI