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Even Without Formal Warning System, Word of  Possible Tsunami Got Out

  • Ron Corben

Despite the lack of a formal warning system, Indian Ocean governments scrambled and improvised and managed to warn their most vulnerable citizens of a possible tsunami after Monday's earthquake in Indonesia. , people in coastal regions responded quickly, moving to higher ground to avoid a repeat of the December 26 disaster.

The massive earthquake that struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra late Monday night has so far claimed hundreds of lives. If it had triggered another tsunami - it did not - and if governments in the region had not used a combination of radio and television, faxes and mobile phones, to warn their citizens of possible danger, the toll could have been far higher.

Soon after the eight-point-seven magnitude earthquake occurred, meteorological departments and government officials across the region improvised warnings to alert people to the danger of a tsunami.

Indonesia's Meteorological and Geophysics Agency, for example, used radio and TV alerts to take the place of a tsunami warning system.

The quake and the warnings sent hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists in coastal areas of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives to higher ground, fearing a possible repeat of the December 26 tsunami that claimed nearly 300,000 lives.

Andi Mallarengang, an Indonesian government spokesman, says the response was a positive development.

"That's one of the good things, the early warning system in terms of how people would react and people going to higher ground right now automatically because they fear about the tsunami," he said.

Soon after the December 26 disaster, talks began on setting up an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. The talks bogged down under competition between Thailand and Indonesia about who should host the system, and the delay led to the two countries proceeding with their own warning systems.

On Tuesday, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that his government would set up a formal warning system within the week.

"I think it's very good, even though we don't have our systems ready yet, but we have a monitoring process that is quite good enough. But we will do better by the end of this month," he said.

Mr. Thaksin added that a combination of SMS mobile phone messages and local radio and television alerts would be used.

Tuesday's quick response by the Thai Meteorological Department was in contrast to accusations that it had failed to alert key centers about the December 26 tsunami.

After that disaster, the head of the Thai Meteorological Department was fired, and the government appointed a former department head, Samith Dharmasarojo, whose warnings seven years earlier that Thailand was vulnerable to tsunamis had been ignored.

On the Thai resort island of Phuket, the tourism police chief, Major General Banthit Khaisutham, says he quickly dispatched people to warn foreign visitors and locals to move to higher ground.

General Banthit says hotel staff and restaurant workers cooperated in keeping people and visitors informed. But he admits the local community was still worried.

"The local people they are afraid, they're afraid there might be the tsunami will come again, but for the tourists, they know from the hotel staff or from the hotel management [kept them] informed what's going on," he said.

Andrea Hinrichs, manager of the Santana Dive Shop near Patong Beach, which was devastated in the December tsunami, said the authorities responded quickly after the earthquake was felt.

"You could feel the earthquake here about 10 minutes past 11 and about half an hour later the Thai authorities gave out earthquake and tsunami warnings so they emptied Patong, the whole beach area, especially the night venues," she said.

Ms. Hinrichs pointed out that people were calm and moved to higher ground where they remained more than two and a half hours before the all clear was given.

She welcomes the news that efforts towards an effective tsunami warning system throughout the region will be stepped up.

"In the moment there's a real tsunami warning system in place, then you feel even safer than last night, [when] Thai authorities acted very, very fast and also precise, giving people straight the right answer where to go to, how to do it," she said.

The December tsunami left a terrible mark on the region, but the reaction to the latest earthquake shows that governments and populations are eager, and prepared, to avoid a repeat of that tragic event.

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