Wednesday, March 30, 2005

PBS's "NOVA" Show Disappointing; Tsunami Program Offers More Hand-Wringing, Little Else

(see March 26 posts for report on visit to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center)
This was the depth of last night’s NOVA program -- “Wave that shook the world” -- about the December tsunami:

Near the end of the show a seismologist intoned that an effective tsunami warning system has three parts – buoys, public education and research. Buoys we understand, public education seems obvious enough and maybe so does research.

But where does the actual “warning” part fit in this list? Where’s the proactive effort that saves lives, the part missing on December 26?

I listened closely and took notes and don’t think I heard “news media” or “radio” or “television” mentioned once. Why? Because this was a show about and by scientists, and it’s obvious by now that the scientists who own the tsunami warning system don’t think the media have a role in the warning plan.

As for hand-wringing, we’ve seen it all before – the lack of Indian Ocean points of contact, nobody to call, nothing to do, we did all we could, etc. In light of 300,000 dead people in the region, this line is getting more than a little old. It appears a great deal of time has been spent on explaining why scientists couldn’t save lives on December 26, with little effort focused on what they might have done had a media plan been in place.

Again, the question must be asked: Where are NOAA's communications GS-whatevers and what are they doing to improve low-tech media-related tsunami warnings? If they have a work plan for improved communications, what is it, and how are they spending their time?

Which brings me to……

If the Media Are Great at Telling PTWC's Story, Can't They Do the Same for Tsunami Warnings?

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center’s response to Monday’s earthquake was much better than in December. Just ask the staff.

Reporters did ask, and the results are on hundreds of Internet news sites.

Not to be too cynical about it, but 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? It seems implausible, but that's what he said...and it's a subject worthy of follow-up with NOAA and the National Weather Service.

The PTWC may believe the system worked better this week, but there are still gaps in getting the information to the ultimate consumers – men, women and children on the ground. The Christian Science Monitor’s on-line story today makes that clear:

“Among the countries with quicker responses were Thailand and Sri Lanka. Thai police with loudspeakers fanned out to order thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate. Slower on the draw were India and Indonesia. India's tsunami warning came at 11:30 p.m., nearly two hours after the quake. In Indonesia, thousands of coastal residents didn't wait for government warnings. They felt the quake and fled.”

Two-hour delay? The news media can move tsunami alerts and advisories to radio and television stations in affected countries within minutes. The story also describes the success of “low-tech” methods in Phuket, Thailand. “People were telling each other and banging on doors…. It worked pretty well, even though the warning system isn’t in place yet,” said a newspaper editor.

Here’s a simple communications model: PTWC contacts Media Agencies which transmit to their Broadcast Clients which broadcast to the Public. That might take 15 minutes at most.

NOAA’s communications professionals – who are doing a good job polishing PTWC’s image – would presumably do an equally fine job creating communications plans built around that model.

Aftershock – A Sea of Bafflement

Judging from on-line stories filed since Monday’s earthquake, a major media theme is the bafflement, puzzlement and amazement of scientists that the quake didn’t generate a tsunami.

Anyone who has watched more than a few hours of the Science Channel might be amazed at their amazement. Even lay people know horizontal shifts in the earth’s plates or quakes deep in the mantel -- as NOVA reported Tuesday night -- might not trigger tsunamis.

More to the point, scientists freely acknowledged this week that earthquakes of 8.0 magnitude or more usually generate major tsunamis. Their each and every quote keeps alive questions about why that general understanding didn’t immediately trigger a tsunami alert in December, why it took 65 minutes for a bulletin to mention the possible tsunami for the first time.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI
March 30, 2005

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I've been following your blog for some time and agree with much of the criticism you level at NOAA and the PTWC personnel concerning their failure to recognize the value and immediacy of utilizing mass media. . . .particularly radio and to a lesser extent CNN/TV News . . . .to reach potential tsunami destruction zones.

Why isn't a communications protocol that involves direct contact with mass media outlets from the very outset of an incident, included in the PTWC/NOAAr crisis management procedures?

I mean, it's a no brainer. If instantaneous communications is the objective ---I'm talking about minutes not hours--- to reach a mass population to alert them to an impending danger headed their way, why not pick up the phone and call the media and declare a "heads up" alert. Going through the US State Department or having contact with other governmental agencies may be great for "after action" assessments but it just won't cut it if the objective and mission is saving lives!

I just don't understand how neither the scientists at PTWC nor the bureaucrats at NOAA see that the KISS concept is overriding! It's very, very simple:

PTWC: "We just registered an 8.5 magnitude earthquake."

PTWC Conclusion: A tsunami is likely.

PTWC: "Call the media. Get the warning out over the radio and TV waves."

PTWC: "OK. Now that that's done call our State Department and other international government agencies and fill them in on the details."

It's as simple as that. The first call ---not the last--- should be to the media!

Now, regarding last night's NOVA program. . . .could someone please tell me why no one thought to ask the scientists and bureaucrats why they didn't make their first call, their second call, or their third call to the media to ask them to sound the alert?

Isn't this an appropriate question to ask? And what about now as they conduct their after incident assessments.

There are errors of commission and their are errors of omission and anyone who calls him/herself a journalist should be asking some tough, hard questions now with regard to the later. That's their job and that's the issue that they should be focusing on.

Keep up the good work, Doug. Regret that I didn't air my views earlier. Perhaps others who have been reading your blog and have been silent on his issue may wish to ---will be encouraged to--- comment.

300,000 lives lost because no one at the PTWC thought to pick up the phone and place one call ---just one--- to CNN. Shameful in the extreme. Shameful!