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Is a Tsunami Warning System Feasable?


Transcript of a VOA interview

MS. PEARSON:

I'm Carol Pearson, and my guest today is Dr. Jack Harrald. He is the Director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Professor Harrald, is there any system in place that could have prevented the calamity that we've seen in the Indian Ocean?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

There is no system in place in the Indian Ocean that would have prevented the disaster.

MS. PEARSON:

But is there any system that we have around the world that we could have used to conduct a more effective warning?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Absolutely. The Pacific Basin is prepared to deal with tsunamis resulting from earthquakes, and there are warning systems both in the United States and Japan and throughout the Pacific Basin to warn populations that the tsunami could have been generated, first, when a seismic event is detected, when a tsunami is detected, then the warning is given. And in most countries in the Pacific Basin, the emergency management in communities, at the government level, are prepared to distribute the warning to the people. Those are the components that are necessary and exist in most of the Pacific Basin. That's one of the few places in the world where they do exist for tsunamis.

MS. PEARSON:

There were some scientists who monitor activity in the Pacific Basin who came to the conclusion that there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean of tremendous magnitude and later were able to decide that it was followed by a tsunami of tremendous magnitude. Could any of the technology that has been in place have been used to warn the people in the countries along the Indian Ocean?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Technology that's in place would have, were the technology in the Indian Ocean. And also there is the technology around the Indian Ocean Basin to detect the earthquake. The earthquake was detected, the tsunami was not. Tsunami detection takes a set of buoys and radio transmitters off of satellites.

But that technology, knowing that the hazard exists and knowing that the event occurred, in and of itself doesn't create the warning system to warn the people. And that's where, even if the technology is put in, that's only part of the solution.

MS. PEARSON:

Well, what needs to be in place to prevent another such calamity?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Well, a tsunami, basically, what you're trying to prevent is the human casualties, the deaths and injuries, from a vulnerable population. And the vulnerable population to a tsunami are people who obviously are on the shoreline. So the answer is to get a warning to that group of people in time that they can act.

Now, obviously, that varied in this case. The time available on the coast of Sumatra was very short. The time available in Sri Lanka and India was quite a bit longer. And could effective warnings have been made, populations could have been evacuated.

And that requires a warning message that says here is the hazard, here is what's coming, and secondly, here's what to do about it, and have some planning to tell the population where to go, what to do.

MS. PEARSON:

You need training?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Well, you need in the government a system of emergency management to receive the message from the scientific/technical community of what the hazard is. You need a technological way to distribute that within geographic regions. Presumably, in the United States that would go, for example, through State emergency management, local emergency management, police, fire. And then to transmit that to the population in a way that they would understand.

Now, that can be as basic as sirens and alarms, if the population knows what the alarm means and knows what to do with it, and prior to the event there have been at least information given to the public of what the threat is, what to do in case of an alarm that does go off.

MS. PEARSON:

Can the system be as simple as if you feel earth tremors and you live along the shore to seek out higher ground?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

That certainly would be a good rule. But for the case of a tsunami, most of the casualties are well beyond the range where you would feel an earthquake. I don't think even in Thailand, I haven't heard any reports, that people felt the ground tremors in Thailand.

MS. PEARSON:

But the warning system goes beyond the technology?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Absolutely.

MS. PEARSON:

You have to have the technology, you have to know who to call?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

The basic truism is that the objective of the warning system is to warn. That means that there has to be a message that is understood by the vulnerable population. And that message has to include what action to take to make themselves less vulnerable.

So to tell the police and fire and people on the coast in Sri Lanka, for example, that a tsunami has occurred, in and of itself does nothing unless they have the capability to alert the people on the beach, on the waterfront, in the villages and towns along the shore, and there has been a preplanning and some information on how to evacuate, where to go, how to get out of the danger areas.

MS. PEARSON:

So it involves education, training, in addition to a warning system?

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Yes. A crude analogy would be the progress made in the United States with the threat of hurricanes. The largest natural disaster total in the United States was Galveston hurricane in 1900, where over 1,000 people died, mostly from drowning from the storm surge. Why? Because they didn't know the hurricane was coming, even though it had crossed Cuba and it had crossed the whole Gulf of Mexico.

As we've seen as recently as this summer, although hurricanes still have tremendous economic devastation, the adequate warning, adequate evacuations, really restricted the death toll that come from that natural hazard.

Similarly with tornadoes. We've developed in this country Doppler radar systems that detect, as we've seen in the Washington area tornado warnings and watches, with instructions on what to do: stay inside your house, seek shelter, et cetera.

In the Pacific Basin, particularly with Japan and the United States, since the Alaska earthquake and others, we've made tremendous progress with tsunami warnings. But unfortunately, even though the scientists can tell you in areas of the world where there are seismic reactive plates, up until this point we haven't had the need or the perceived need or the interest in investing in creating those systems. Obviously, from the things we're seeing now, that interest is there post?event, as it always is in reaction to a natural disaster. And that's when things happen.

MS. PEARSON:

What about the accuracy of the warnings? There have been a lot of people who have been talking about if you have a tsunami warning coming and there is no tsunami, that people will then become more complacent about it, take the warnings less seriously. And in fact India was criticized for issuing a warning that turned out to be a false alarm.

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

I'm not sure where that warning came from. If you have a system, as we do in the Pacific Basin, again, where warnings are given only when tsunamis have been generated ?? now, where the size of the tsunami is not known, so the impact is not known, alerts are given when an earthquake that could generate a tsunami has been detected. So there is a period of time where you have information, where you don't know a tsunami has been generated or not, until you look at the tsunami. That's what the tsunami detection buoys do is detect whether a wave has actually been generated or not.

Whenever there is a warning system, you have a potential for false alarms. We see that in the security situation in the United States. And there is that behavior, yes. If you have too many false alarms, in particular if you have a system that is giving alarms based on inadequate information, rumor or others, then you're in trouble.

So the front end of the system is good science, good technology. But the back end of the system is good communications, and good communications to the public. Technology, in and of itself, doesn't do it.

MS. PEARSON:

Thank you very much. Professor Jack Harrald is with The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Thanks for joining us.

PROFESSOR HARRALD:

Thank you.

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