Sunday, January 02, 2005

No Tsunami Warning -- Why?

One week after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the death toll is approaching 150,000. A significant percentage of these people perished at least two hours after the triggering earthquake. It took at least two hours for the ocean seismic waves to reach Sri Lanka, India and other countries after the earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia -- long enough, some say, for a warning to have been sent to the region. Could the victims in these distant countries have been warned early enough to save their lives? That is the question that prompts creation of this blog.

Media reports in the first few days following the quake cited the absence of an early-warning system of sensors in the Indian Ocean as the reason an adequate warning was not given to the countries’ populations. This condition has been contrasted to the warning system that connects all Pacific Rim nations with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Honolulu, HI.

Scientists and officials at this and other U.S. agencies were quoted in numerous media stories as having said they did everything they could to alert colleagues and governments around the Indian Ocean once they suspected that a tsunami had been generated.

As noted in my letter to The Honolulu Advertiser published on December 30, however, what’s missing in all these newspaper, radio and television reports is any indication that scientists ever initiated contact with the American mass media at any time following the earthquake. The question this blog will examine in the weeks ahead is whether early notification of the media might have saved tens of thousands of lives around the Indian Ocean rim and whether the PTWC and other U.S. agencies are prepared to use aggressive outside-the-box thinking to avert human devastation on the scale recorded on December 26.

Did U.S. scientists have the mindset – once they suspected the quake had triggered a tsunami – to make a low-tech warning phone call to the Associated Press, CNN, and other news organization with global networks, or were they so conditioned to high-tech e-mails and web postings that they missed the opportunity to use the mass media to warn mass populations of the Indian Ocean countries? Since several additional hours passed before the tsunami crashed into the African coast, were lives lost there and elsewhere because the mass media were not notified?

The Honolulu Advertiser followed up on this question in part on December 31 with a story headlined “World lacks global alert for disaster”. A tsunami timeline provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that accompanied that story noted that officials at the PTWC initially calculated the magnitude of the Sumatra earthquake at 6.6 and issued a bulletin to the Hawaii Civil Defense agencies 16 minutes after the quake noting that “there is no tsunami threat to Hawaii”. No mention was made in that bulletin of a potential tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

That assessment changed in the next 45 minutes, however, and a bulletin issued 65 minutes after the earthquake revised the magnitude up to 8.5 and advised recipients of the possibility of a tsunami near the quake’s epicenter (see official timeline).

The timeline next notes that 1 hour and 31 minutes after the quake the PTWC unsuccessfully attempted to contact the Australia Met Service but did reach Australia Emergency Management. The timeline’s next entry comes at 2 hours and 31 minutes after the quake and says: “Internet newswire reports of casualties in Sri Lanka provided PTWC with the first indications of the existence of a destructive tsunami. Indications are that the tsunami had already struck the entire area by this time, although we have not been able to obtain arrival times.” Fifteen minutes later, PTWC contacted the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii – some 2 hours and 46 minutes after the quake.

This timeline and the PTWC’s reactions noted in it are critical to the assessment of whether calls to American mass media outlets might have saved lives – presuming of course that the Associated Press would have reacted swiftly and issued a Flash bulletin to its clients. According to published reports in various media, the tsunami did not strike Sri Lanka, India and Somalia until two, three and nearly six hours respectively after the earthquake.

Official inquiries will be made into how it was possible, as asked in the December 31st Honolulu Advertiser story, that "in the age of wireless communications, the Internet and 24-hour news, a catastrophic wall of water was able to cross an ocean and devastate a dozen nations' coastlines without notice." This blog will stay focused on that question and do what it can to help ensure that U.S. agencies in a position to issue life-saving warnings do so in the most efficient and media-aware ways possible.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI
January 2, 2005

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