- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Asian officials conceded yesterday that they failed to issue broad public warnings immediately after a massive undersea earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, which could have saved countless lives from the subsequent giant waves that smashed into ten countries and as far away as Africa.

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 the system up.

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

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

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 warning system is administered by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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 are much rarer in the Indian Ocean than in the Pacific.

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.

Regional governments affected by the Sunday quake insisted they did not know the true nature of the threat.

“No one ever told us that these things can be predicted and we can be told about them,” said Sumana Gamage, a shop owner in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “Next time I hope our government can do this.”

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

Indonesia villages closest to the temblor’s epicenter were swamped within minutes, but elsewhere the waves radiated outwards, gathering speed and ferocity 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 hours, the torrents had traveled about 1,000 miles and slammed India and Sri Lanka. Malaysia, the Maldives, Burma, Bangladesh and Seychelles also were hit. Eventually they struck Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, where hundreds were reported killed.

The death toll Monday topped 22,000, with millions left homeless.

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,” Mr. 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,” he said.

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.

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