Mon, Jul 24, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Lack of tsunami warning system cost lives in Java


Marine Police Sergeant Sudarman received a call from a reporter in Jakarta telling him that tsunami warnings had been issued for his section of the coast.

Two minutes later, the killer waves crashed ashore.

"If only there had been more time," said Sudarman, who was on duty when the earthquake-triggered tsunami struck last Monday, killing at least 668 people. "We could have told those nearby and at least have reduced the number of casualties."

Indonesia was the worst-hit country in 2004's Asian tsunami, and last week's disaster has raised questions as to why authorities were not able to warn communities on the southern coast of Java.

Indonesia is installing a nationwide alert system with monitoring buoys, tide gauges and warning sirens on beaches, but it currently covers only parts of the island of Sumatra, the hardest-hit area in 2004. Experts say it would have been impossible for the country to establish a network covering all of its 18,000 islands in just 19 months.

Preliminary readings of the quake's magnitude also indicated it was not strong enough to trigger a tsunami, and the first wave hit around 45 minutes after the temblor struck, giving authorities very little time.

Most criticism has centered on earthquake authorities in Jakarta, which received warnings within 20 minutes after the quake struck from US and Japanese geological agencies, who said that it had the potential to trigger a tsunami.

One official has said they tried to pass these bulletins on to threatened communities, but there was no formal procedure in place or list of telephone numbers immediately available.

Authorities on the coast say they received no warnings.

"From within the system, yes, there are many holes," Research and Technology Minister Kusmayanto Kadiman said, adding that there is always the potential of human error. "What if the person who received [the alert] is not sensitive enough? He thinks, `oh, it's just another SMS, or mobile phone text message.'"

The Meteorological and Geophysics Agency "must make sure it knows exactly whom to inform, not just one person, one party, then check and recheck to make sure the message was received and clearly understood," he said on Saturday.

Sri Lanka and Thailand do not have expensive buoys or other monitoring equipment, but say they have a system in place to quickly inform coastal authorities if they receive alerts from foreign agencies that a tsunami may be heading their way.

"The government should have asked television stations and radio to immediately pass on the information," the Koran Tempo newspaper said in an editorial last week.

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