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….”