- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

An early warning system introduced after the disastrous Christmas 2004 tsunami worked as planned, U.S. officials say, but failed to prevent the deaths of more than 100 people in Samoa and American Samoa on Tuesday because of the proximity of the originating earthquake.

It was the first practical test of the system, set up in response to the 2004 wave that killed more than 220,000 people in the Indian Ocean region, primarily in Indonesia.

Officials scrambled after an 8.0-magnitude earthquake shook just before dawn Tuesday, and after a flurry of phone calls within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Island offices, the first warning was issued within 16 minutes, said NOAA spokeswoman Delores Clark. She said that was well within the agency’s range of 10 to 20 minutes for an acceptable warning.

But because the quake was so close to American Samoa, it was just four minutes after the warning that a series of two-story-high waves crashed over low-lying villages and heavily damaged the capital city of Pago Pago.

Samoa’s Deputy Prime Minister Misa Telefoni told Australia’s AAP news agency that the event happened so quickly there was little time to get out of harm’s way.

“The difficulty is that it now appears that the [earthquake] fault was very, very close to us and we only had minutes rather than hours to respond,” Mr. Telefoni said.

“People were saying that there was the shake and the ocean went out within five minutes, so that’s pretty fast and that makes it extremely difficult,” he added. “With the location and the intensity, I don’t know [if] anything better could have been done.”

Joey Cummings, a radio disc jockey at 93KHJ in Pago Pago, told the BBC that as soon as the earthquake hit, the station told schools to initiate tsunami warnings and transport children up the mountain.

Mrs. Clark said the earthquake hit at 6:48 a.m. local time, and the Hawaii office issued its first warning at 7:04 a.m., 16 minutes later. She said the tsunami hit roughly 20 minutes after the earthquake, or four minutes after the official warning.

Mrs. Clark said the center’s computers - like those at its twin, the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center - constantly monitor seismic data for earthquakes, then look at water levels to determine whether to send out tsunami warnings or watches.

NOAA said it has made a “significant investment” in tsunami detection and warning systems since the 2004 disaster in Indonesia.

The agency increased the number of tsunami buoys around the world from six to 39 at a cost of about $1 million each, Mrs. Clark said. She said the expenditure “absolutely has helped” with tsunami detection.

She also said the Hawaii office and the International Tsunami Information Center recently held a workshop on American Samoa, which helped local officials know how to respond to the first signs of an earthquake.

“That was very helpful,” Mrs. Clark said.

As the official death toll rose Wednesday, dozens of people remained missing among the destroyed buildings and mud-soaked streets.

Entire villages have reportedly been destroyed by the four waves that rumbled over the island.

President Obama declared the island a disaster area, a designation that sets recovery efforts in motion and makes federal funding immediately available.

“Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami in American Samoa and the region,” Mr. Obama said.

“I am closely monitoring these tragic events, and have declared a major disaster for American Samoa, which will provide the tools necessary for a full, swift and aggressive response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in close and constant contact with emergency responders, and the U.S. Coast Guard is fully supporting the deployment of resources to those areas in need of immediate assistance,” the president said.

“Going forward, we will continue to provide the resources necessary to respond to this catastrophe, and we will keep those who have lost so much in our thoughts and prayers,” he added.

A team of National Guardsmen was headed Wednesday to the island aboard a Coast Guard plane, and personnel from FEMA were also en route with emergency supplies.

The officials will assist in rescue-and-recover efforts - including restoring power and cleaning up the heavily damaged southern part of the island, which is coated in mud and filled with debris, including boats and overturned cars.

Roughly 85 guardsmen were preparing to depart from Hawaii and will be in American Samoa within the next 24 hours, National Guard spokesman Walter Debany said Wednesday.

He said the team, from the Hawaii National Guard’s 154th Airlift Wing, will arrive in two or three C-17 cargo planes and will help local officials with specialized duties such as communications and hazardous materials.

“This is not an ad hoc effort,” he said. “This is what they’ve trained for. They are well-trained.”

Water lines have been damaged, and the island’s main power station is down, so residents could be without electricity for a month, Samoa News reported.

The quake was centered about 120 miles south of Samoa and American Samoa, a U.S. territory.

Eni Faleomavaega, the territory’s non-voting delegate in Congress, was unavailable Wednesday because he was returning home from Washington.

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