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.