Fri, Dec 31, 2004 - Page 5 News List

India's bungled early warning system

FATAL DELAY Critical minutes were wasted as authorities scrambled through red tape to warn the population of the disaster, costing thousands of lives

AFP , New Delhi, India

Tidal wave victims from Car Nicobar, cry at a relief camp in Port Blair, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands, yesterday. Chasing the stench of rotting bodies, rescuers struggled yesterday through lush and dense forests in India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, where officials fear thousands might be lying dead.

PHOTO: AP

India's tangled bureaucracy bungled the first alerts on the tsunami strike losing precious time which could have saved lives, newspapers reported yesterday.

India's air force was warned that a remote base on Car Nicobar island had been flooded well before the giant waves hit the mainland coast hundreds of kilometers away on Sunday morning, the Indian Express said.

"At 7:30 am (0200 GMT) we were informed .... about a massive earthquake near Andamans and Nicobar," air force chief S. Krishnaswamy told the daily. "But communications links went down" with the islands.

"The last message from Car Nicobar base was that the island is sinking and there is water all over."

At 8:15am, the air chief says he asked an assistant to alert the defense ministry.

On the civilian side, totally disconnected from the military, the Indian Meteorological Department had sent a warning fax out at 8:54 am -- but it went to the former science minister Murli Manohar Joshi, and not the incumbent Kapil Sibal. The government changed last May.

Unaware of the mistake, the department then sent another fax to the Home Ministry's disaster control room, at 9:41 am.

At 10:30 (0500 GMT), the control room informed the cabinet secretariat.

Thousands were already dead along India's devastated southeastern coastline.

The Crisis Management Group, India's main emergency response body, finally met at one pm.

The country's top science and technology official told The Times of India that his department learnt of the tsunami strike from the television. V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary at the department, said they had "no clue."

The undersea earthquake hit off Indonesia's Sumatra at 6:29am, sending killer tsunamis racing across the Indian Ocean. Although Indian scientists monitored the quake, because it was outside the country, they just relaxed, the Times said. That had been "the first mistake," Ramamurthy said.

India will now install systems to detect tsunamis at the cost of more than US$27 million, Sibal said Wednesday.

An international expert told the Express that India had turned a deaf ear to repeated warnings it needed a tidal wave alert system similar to that used by many countries because of the costs.

Nearly 11,000 people died in India and thousands are still unaccounted for, particularly on the Andaman and Nicobar islands where communications facilities are poor or non-existent.

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