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Simulated Test of Pacific Tsunami System Held with Some Help From Mother Nature

The Pacific Tsunami Warning System has been tested for the first time with a two-phase, region-wide drill, sending alerts about imaginary earthquakes and tsunamis to dozens of countries. An extra bit of authenticity was added to the tests, when real earthquakes struck parts of the region.

A mock warning of a tsunami, triggered by an imaginary earthquake in the northern Philippines, put more than 20 countries in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea on high alert Wednesday morning.

A day earlier, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and other sub-regional warning centers sent out warnings of a mock earthquake off the coast of central Chile.

The aim of the unprecedented two-day, Pacific-wide exercise - code-named "Pacific Wave 06" - was to avoid a repeat of the 2004 disaster in the Indian Ocean, where a tsunami left more than 200,000 people dead or missing. Experts say a functioning alert system then might have saved many lives.

Mark Sullivan, Australia-based chairman of the exercise task team, says testing is a key element in the success of a tsunami warning system.

"It's only through exercising and training, practice, that people become familiar with the arrangements and therefore can respond appropriately when a real event does occur," he explained.

The first stage of the exercise tested the dissemination of alert messages from tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and other places to national emergency authorities. Warnings were relayed in numerous ways, including e-mail, fax and text messages. The more than 30 countries participating in Tuesday's drill, in the Americas and the Central and South Pacific, all said they received the warnings.

Participating countries were asked to simulate a national emergency response to the warnings. Some, such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, staged partial evacuations in coastal areas.

The exercise took on an air of reality when real earthquakes hit New Zealand and Indonesia on Tuesday, and Tonga on Wednesday. None of the earthquakes was strong enough to trigger real tsunami warnings, but they were a reminder of how volatile the region is.

William Erb is head of the coordination group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System in Perth, Australia. He says a warning system for the region hit by the 2004 tsunami has made considerable progress.

"Essentially the sea-level network is in place, the seismic system has been improved," he said, "the actual development of warning centers in the region has been worked on, several countries are building such centers, several countries are putting instruments in the water to do the detection - it's progressing very well."

The organizers of the exercise plan to hold regular Pacific-wide tsunami drills in the future.