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Indonesian Tsunami Surprised Residents; Warning System Still Not Ready

Monday's deadly tsunami in Indonesia has again raised the issue of the urgency of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. Residents in western Java say they received no alerts of the coming waves, which could have saved many lives. At least 330 people were killed by the tsunami and nearly 3,000 are homeless.

When the huge waves came crashing onto the shores of West Java on Monday, this man knew he had to run for his life.

He says "I saw the wave come and rise and I ran out with my family. I could not describe the horror."

By now many Indonesians know the signs of a tsunami - of the ocean retreating fast and coming back as a wall of water. They saw it in December 2004 in Aceh province, where more than 150,000 people died or disappeared when a massive earthquake triggered a tsunami that raced across the Indian Ocean.

On Monday, there appeared to be little time to escape to higher ground. Many people on the West Java beaches did not feel the 7.7 magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunami. And residents said no warning reached them.

Seventeen minutes after detecting the earthquake in the Indian Ocean, 355 kilometers from Jakarta, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii released a tsunami alert for southern Java and Australia's Christmas Island.

The head of earthquake monitoring at the Indonesian Bureau of Meteorology and Geophysics, Suharjono, says the bureau also relayed a warning minutes after the earthquake, advising people near the shore to go to higher ground.

But Suharjono says on a big island like Java, getting the message across is not easy.

"The problem is how to disseminate our information [to] the community on the shore. I heard that many people felt the earthquake and some ran to higher [ground]," he said.

The 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean countries galvanized countries from Asia to Africa to develop a tsunami warning system. But a-year-and-a-half after the disaster, that system is far from ready.

Michael Rottmann is a United Nations special coordinator for the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system in Jakarta. He says international donors are helping the Indonesian government set up a network of sensors but it will not be ready soon.

"It is a very sophisticated one and it needs still some more time to be implemented," Rottmann explained. "It is going to be part of the whole [Indian Ocean] system but it has the advantage of gathering a lot of data that's so far not available which will make the authorities in Indonesia issue a very reliable warning."

Officials say the system will not be fully implemented until 2009. They say of the more than 20 sea sensors to be installed, only two are in place, both in western Sumatra - hundreds of kilometers away from the communities hit Monday.

Malaysia and Thailand have taken steps toward forming their own warning systems. Thailand installed warning sirens on Phuket beach, which was devastated in 2004, while Malaysia has deployed ocean sensors.

Until an Indian Ocean system is up and running, tsunami information would come largely from the long established Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. But it has limited sea level data for the Indian Ocean.

Seismologists and tsunami experts are expected to meet on Indonesia's Bali Island next week to assess the progress of the Indian Ocean warning system. The experts say the latest tsunami is another reminder of the urgency of setting up the system before another disaster strikes.