Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Truth Is Out: NOAA Couldn't Issue a Tsunami Warning to the News Media Because It Didn't Have Their Phone Numbers

The question this web log has been asking for six days finally has been answered by an official U.S. government source.

As incredible as it seems, NOAA and its subordinate agencies could not call the news media to warn Indian Ocean nations of the onrushing killer tsunami because they didn't even have a list of media telephone numbers.

By inference, that means NOAA's crisis communications plans don't include low-tech telephone calls to mass media organizations when a warning must reach a mass audience.

Confirmation of earlier suspicions came from a NOAA spokesperson as reported by UPI Pentagon correspondent Pamela Hess and posted on the Washington Times' site:

"The watch standers first learned of the tsunami through the media almost four hours after the earthquake. Following the realization that a massive tsunami had been generated, they did the best job they could to contact authorities," said Dolores Clark, a spokeswoman for NOAA. "But they were fixed on reaching agencies that have responsibilities for warning such as weather offices or disaster management offices."

"Not only was the center focused on warning agencies, it does not have an official list of media contacts," Clark said.

"Unfortunately, there was no system set up to accomplish this because the (Pacific Tsunami Warning Center) serves Pacific Ocean countries," she said.

So there it is. No media contacts, no media phone numbers and therefore no media planning by a U.S. agency that prides itself as being the world leader in tsunami preparedness. At least two NOAA agencies -- the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the International Tsunami Information Center -- knew there was no high-tech warning system in the Indian Ocean. They knew tsunamis are a threat to the region (see what they must have known below). They knew a major quake one day might trigger a massive tsunami there.

And knowing that, they did what exactly? How did they prepare to warn Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, India and other nations of a magnitude 8.0 or higher earthquake and the threat of a potential tsunami?

Maybe Senator Olympia Snowe's hearings will uncover plans that simply were not executed properly, but based on the latest revelations, NOAA's crisis communications planning appears to have been inadequate -- with catastrophic results.

What Did NOAA Scientists Know About the Threat?

Why did NOAA scientists conclude almost immediately after the earthquake that no tsunami had been generated? As experts, surely they knew (as the world has learned) that earthquakes in that region do create tsunamis.

The International Coordinating Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific held its Nineteenth Session in Wellington, New Zealand September 29-October 2, 2003. Four NOAA officials attended this conference. Page 30 of the session's report says the following about earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean (click link for PDF file):

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...."

One NOAA attendee has explained NOAA's decision to not issue a warning about a potential tsunami in the first two hours following the Sumatra earthquake this way: "Our business is not to guess, so we did not guess there would be tsunamis."

My guess is that NOAA deeply regrets that remark and that a massive review of the agency's crisis communications procedures -- including media notification -- is quietly underway.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI
January 8, 2005

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