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Originally published December 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 28, 2004 at 12:38 PM

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Tsunami warnings too little, too late

Asian officials conceded yesterday that immediately after a massive undersea earthquake, they failed to issue broad public warnings that could have saved countless lives from the...

The Associated Press

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Asian officials conceded yesterday that immediately after a massive undersea earthquake, they failed to issue broad public warnings that could have saved countless lives from the subsequent giant waves that smashed into nine countries.

India said it would consider establishing a warning system, and Australia and Japan said they would help build it. One Australian official said it would take at least a year to set one up. A basic, regional monitoring system would cost tens of million of dollars.

Also, Thailand's Meteorological Department said the country lacked an international warning system and proper coordination to get messages of impending disasters sent across the country.

"If we had the international warning system, we could give real-time warning to people," said Seismological Bureau official Sumalee Prachuab.

What warnings there were came too little, too late.

"No one ever told us that these things can be predicted and we can be told about them," said Sumana Gamage, a shopowner in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Retired Sri Lankan air-force chief Harry Goonetilleke said, "There should have been such an arrangement for the region. This is absolutely not acceptable."

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the largest in 40 years — shifted huge geological plates beneath the sea northwest of Sumatra island, causing a massive and sudden displacement of millions of tons of water.

Indonesia villages closest to the temblor's epicenter were swamped within minutes, but elsewhere the waves radiated outward until they made landfall. The waves moved at speeds topping 500 mph.

Waves began pummeling southern Thailand about one hour after the earthquake. After 2-1/2 hours, the waves had traveled 1,000 miles and slammed India and Sri Lanka. Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh were also hit. Eventually the waves struck Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, where hundreds were reported killed.

Indonesian officials said they had no way to know that the earthquake had caused waves, or tsunamis, or how dangerous they might have been.

"Unfortunately, we have no equipment here that can warn about tsunamis," said Budi Waluyo, an official with Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. "The instruments are very expensive and we don't have money to buy them."

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But Thammasarote Smith, a former senior forecaster at Thailand's Meteorological Department, said governments could have done much more to warn people about the danger.

"The department had up to an hour to announce the emergency message and evacuate people but they failed to do so," Thammasarote was quoted as saying in The Bangkok Post newspaper. "It is true that an earthquake is unpredictable, but a tsunami, which occurs after an earthquake, is predictable."

Kathawudhi Marlairojanasiri, the department's chief weather forecaster, said it issued warnings through radio and television beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday about a possible undertow along the southwest coast of Thailand, where tens of thousands of foreign tourists were vacationing.

But the warnings came after the first waves hit. A Web site warning went up three hours later — but by then, at least 700 people had died in Thailand.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra refused to answer reporters' questions today about tsunami alerts.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he would investigate what role his country could play in setting up an Indian Ocean warning system.

The head of the British Commonwealth bloc of Britain and its former colonies called for talks on creating a global early-warning system for tsunamis. Five Commonwealth countries — India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Malaysia and Bangladesh — were among those struck by the massive waves.

"Modern technology would say you should know about these things anywhere in the globe instantly and, therefore, be able to respond to them," Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Harley Benz of the U.S. Geological Survey national earthquake-information service in Golden, Colo., said a basic system of seismic sensors and tide gauges could be set up within two years.

"Putting in the sensors is the easy part," Benz said. "The difficult part here would be coordination between emergency-response agencies in the region. Then, you have to deal with education, preparedness and training issues."

Scientists said seismic networks in the region recorded Sunday's earthquake, but without ocean sensors tracking the path of the waves, there was no way to determine the direction a tsunami would travel.

"If they had tidal gauges and a tsunami-warning system, many people who died would have been saved," said Waverly Person, director of the USGS earthquake-information service.

Such a system presumes, however, an organized communication system and widely understood procedures and discipline by hotel operators, fishing villages and local authorities to clear the coastline quickly in case of a coming disaster.

Most of developing Asia lacks such infrastructure, and casualties were by far highest in three highly impoverished areas — the coasts of eastern Sri Lanka and southeastern India, and the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island.

An international warning system in the Pacific was started in 1965, the year after tsunamis associated with a magnitude 9.2 quake struck Alaska. The U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administers the system.

Member states include all the major Pacific Rim nations in North America, Asia and South America, as well as the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.

Tsunamis occur only occasionally, but they are much rarer in the Indian Ocean than the Pacific, where one occurs every few years.

In Japan, a network of fiber-optic sensors records any seismic activity and passes that information to a powerful computer at the Meteorological Agency, which estimates the height, speed, destination and arrival time of any tsunamis. Within two minutes of the quake, the agency can sound the alarm.

Phil McFadden, chief scientist with the government-funded Geoscience Australia, said places close to the epicenter of the earthquake would have been hit so quickly that any warning would have come too late.

But if there had been a Pacific-style alert system covering the Indian Ocean, "there would have been time for people in Sri Lanka, across in the Maldives or somewhere like that to have done something about it," he said.

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