Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Anybody Can Monitor Earthquakes and Tsunamis; The Trick Is Telling the Public What You Know

JERRY SEINFELD: I don't understand, I made a reservation. Do you have my reservation?
RENTAL CAR AGENT: Yes, we do. Unfortunately we ran out of cars.
JERRY: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.
RENTAL CAR AGENT: I know why we have reservations.
JERRY: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation, and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Who would have thought a 16-year-old Seinfeld script would be relevant to today’s tsunami-related news, but there it is – a workable metaphor about tsunami detection and warning. First, the news:

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Tsunami experts, state representatives and National Guard members toured the tsunami warning center in Jakarta today, which has transformed over the past two years into a state-of-the-art, 24-hour facility.

The December 2004 tsunami rocked Indonesia, killing more than 120,000 residents and spurring a concerted effort to concentrate on tsunami preparedness. Countries around the world pledged their support, while Hawai'i experts also offered up their knowledge.

Hawai'i has one of the most sophisticated tsunami warning systems in the world.

Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, said he has had a host of discussions with Indonesians since 2004 to get their country tsunami-ready. He said the tsunami center in Jakarta is now well on its way to becoming a world-class facility. Still, he added, "Indonesia has a big challenge in front of it."

That’s a challenge Hawaii’s PTWC arguably has yet to overcome, as we’ve suggested here for more than two years. The Center reportedly does an excellent job of monitoring earthquakes – the “taking reservations” part – but it’s with the “holding/warning” follow-up that the Center fails to do its most important job.

It’s darkly ironic that the PTWC is Indonesia’s source of professionalism in the creation of its own tsunami warning center. Even though the Hawaii Center’s personnel suspected a tsunami had been generated in December 2004, they didn’t do anything with that knowledge to save Indonesian lives. (See numerous posts since January 2005 for additional comment.)

They “took the reservation” but they didn’t “hold the reservation.” They kept the information they knew about the Indonesian earthquake so close to their collective vests that they didn’t successfully communicate what they knew to populations in peril throughout the Indian Ocean region.

Let’s hope McCreery and his fellow U.S. experts have conveyed to their Indonesian counterparts the importance of effective public communications. It’s one thing to install millions of dollars of earthquake-detecting equipment in Jakarta; it’s quite another to implement a quick-reaction warning system using local media to alert the public to a suspected tsunami.

Unless there’s a way to warn the public, all that equipment is a waste.
Click here to visit CHORE -- Citizens Helping Officials Respond to Emergencies -- for occasional posts on the status and adequacy of emergency communications in Hawaii.