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Thai Meteorologist Returns to Oversee Tsunami Warning System

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A senior Thai meteorologist whose warnings about tsunamis were ignored years ago is now overseeing the establishment of a tsunami warning system in his country.

In 1998, Samith Dharmasaroja, a Thai government meteorologist, called for the creation of a tsunami warning system after an earthquake and wave surge in Papua New Guinea took the lives of over 1,000 people. He was accused of scaring away tourists and harming business, and eventually was pushed to retire.

Now, Mr. Samith is back at work, recalled by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, following the December 26 tsunami that claimed more than 150,000 lives across the Indian Ocean.

"I put a warning in written form to the department concerned and to the deputy minister and so on, but they didn't regard my warning," he said.

That had deadly consequences last month. More than 5,000 people perished as the waves smashed into resorts and fishing villages in southern Thailand. Almost half the victims were foreign tourists.

The prime minister has called for an investigation into why the Thai Meteorological Department did not warn of a possible tsunami after a massive earthquake hit off the shores of northern Indonesia.

Mr. Samith says a tsunami warning system could have cut Thailand's death toll by half. "I am sorry for all the people that died," he added. "For the family of the people who lost their lives because if the government had taken some action and not disregard my early warning, I can save a lot of lives, especially Thai citizen and also foreigners."

Mr. Samith also asks why the U.S. tsunami warning center in Hawaii failed to warn countries of the approaching wave surge. The tsunami reached India 90 minutes after devastating Indonesia's Aceh province.

"They are supposed to give early warning because there was a lot of time left for them to issue an early warning for these countries," said Mr. Samith. "I want to find out. I still get mad, really mad, because they could [have saved] maybe 60,000 lives from those countries."

The U.S. center works with Pacific Rim governments that participate in the warning system. However, most of the nations hit by the tsunami do not take part, partly because the tsunami risk in the region was considered small. The U.S. center says because it has no monitoring system in the Indian Ocean, it did not detect the tsunami, but did issue a warning that one was possible.

The need for regional tsunami warning systems will be the focus of a ministerial meeting being held in Bangkok on January 28.

Thailand is bidding to be the base for the center. But it is facing stiff competition from Indonesia.

Mr. Samith says Thailand's satellite and telecommunications systems and links between the Pacific and Indian Oceans gives the country a geographical advantage.

The United Nations cultural and scientific agency, UNESCO, has said a $30 million tsunami warning system could be in place in the Indian Ocean by mid-2006.
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