Indonesia Escapes Another Tsunami Disaster

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16pm EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Fears that a powerful earthquake off Indonesia would generate another devastating Asian tsunami abated Tuesday, when it appeared that the damage and loss of life, though considerable, was limited to an island near the epicenter.

Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla said as many as 2,000 people may have been killed on Nias, an island off Sumatra that is home to half a million people. Many buildings and homes there collapsed as a result of the earthquake late Monday night.

Measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at 8.7 on the Richter scale, the undersea quake occurred at a depth of 19 miles, and about 110 miles southeast of the location of the 9.0 earthquake on Dec. 26, which triggered tsunamis across the region, killing more than 270,000 people.

Tsunami warnings were sounded in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand -- all three badly affected by December's disaster -- and thousands of people were evacuated from low-lying coastal areas.

Mauritius and Madagascar, thousands of miles to the southwest of the quake zone, also issued warnings.

Most of the warnings were later called off when it became apparent big tsunamis were not on their way. Small tsunamis were recorded at a remote Australian island and along Australia's western coastline.

Tsunamis have most commonly occurred in the Pacific, where the U.S. National Weather Service's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii monitors the situation.

The center does not have tidal gauges in the Indian Ocean, but sent warning messages to various countries in the region and urged authorities within 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of the epicenter to evacuate coastal inhabitants. Authorities in Japan, a country susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis, also sent warnings to the South-East Asian region.

Individual nations bordering the Indian Ocean have tidal gauges and there are bad weather early warning systems in Vietnam and Bangladesh.

But the region lacks a fully-functioning tsunami warning system like the Pacific's, and the December tsunami provided the impetus for stepped-up international efforts to meet that need.

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator, Jan Egeland, said there was now contact between geological survey stations in the U.S., Japan and other countries with most of the region's government and civil defense authorities.

He told a briefing it was his impression that "the system worked far better this time. Not only did we have surveillance and information [relayed] to the countries, but we also had governments reporting out to the local authorities."

An early-warning system for the Indian Ocean comparable to the one in the Pacific should be ready by next year, Egeland said.

He also noted that, while emergency agencies had to start from scratch the morning after the Dec. 26 disaster, this time there were thousands international and Indonesian aid workers in Sumatra, equipped with trucks, boats and helicopters, to respond to the needs on Nias.

President Bush said last month he would ask Congress for a total of $950 million for tsunami-affected countries, a figure that includes an initial $350 million pledged in January.

The budget, which U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Andrew Natsios said was America's largest humanitarian pledge ever, includes $35 million to create early warning systems that will cover both tsunamis and typhoons -- an even deadlier problem in the region.

According to Natsios, there are three elements to an early-warning system -- sensor devices to indicate that a tsunami or typhoon is approaching; a communication system to get the information from the sensory devices to authorities and communities at risk; and community-based education systems "so when the alarms go off, people in the villages know where to go."

Alan P. Larson, undersecretary for economic, business and agricultural affairs, told the Senate foreign relations committee last month that the U.S. government was working with U.N. agencies and other donor nations to develop an early-warning system for the Indian Ocean.

"We might also consider compiling and exercising internet-based networks and databases to facilitate coordination in responding to disasters," he said.

See earlier story:
No Big Tsunami Yet; Southeast Asia Waits (Mar. 28, 2005)

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