U.S. scientists say they knew killer waves could be speeding toward Asian coastlines Sunday on the heels of an earthquake, but they had no way to alert the doomed.
“We knew we had an earthquake, and we issued a bulletin 15 minutes later. But the magnitude of the earthquake [initially] was 8.0, which is not a guaranteed tsunami-producer,” Jeff LaDouce, director of the National Weather Service’s Pacific Region and head of the U.S. tsunami program, said yesterday from his Honolulu office.
“Our business is not to guess, so we did not guess there would be tsunamis. The first we learned of tsunamis were press reports about casualties in Sri Lanka 2 hours after the earthquake hit.”
No additional data was available, he said, because there is no tsunami-warning center for the Indian Ocean.
Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif., bemoaned the lack of information federal officials had available to them in advance of Sunday’s catastrophe, given the lack of a warning center.
“There’s always frustration in knowing that something could have been done, and in this case, there would have been the potential to issue some warnings to people in Sri Lanka and southeastern India … and save many lives, if a proper warning system had been in place.”
The federal alert center in Honolulu that warns Pacific countries about approaching tsunamis detected the earthquake off the coast of Indonesia that generated the giant killer waves, some of which moved at speeds topping 500 mph and eventually killed tens of thousands.
But the absence of an alert system in Asia meant information could not be sent out fast enough to prompt immediate evacuations.
“We knew the whole coast of Sumatra was capable of large damaging earthquakes and large tsunamis,” said Mr. Hudnut, who acknowledged there probably would not have been enough time to effectively warn people in Sumatra and Indonesia.
But it “took a few hours” for the killer waves to reach the more distant locations, such as Sri Lanka and southeastern India.
Yesterday, multinational pressure was mounting to create an Indian Ocean tsunami- warning center.
“The United States has long supported a more global tsunami system that would include the Indian Ocean,” Mr. LaDouce said.
Mr. Hudnut agreed that such a system is necessary. “In recent years, we’ve had a huge succession of earthquakes in India, Taiwan and Iran, but this is the worst disaster I’ve ever seen.
“It takes calamities like this to make people realize the importance of having warning systems in place.”
Mr. Hudnut learned yesterday that a typhoon-warning system already is in effect in the area stricken by the earthquake and tsunami, and he said perhaps that could be modified to alert residents to tidal waves.