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Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Two Hours

By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 1:38 pm

Via the Glendale Oregon News we find that Two Hours Precious Time Lost To Warn Victims Of Tidal Waves.

This answers a question that I had earlier, which was what was the time between quake and tsunami, which gets to the issue of early warning systems.

The answer is two hours. (Update: that would be for Sri Lanka only-other locations, including Indonesia and Malaysia, would have had far less time-in the case of Indonesia, that would be almost no time).

The story notes that typically data from major quakes is reviewed by the US Geological Survey monitors within a few hours of the event.

Keep in mind also, that the quake occurred at 00:58.53 (UTC) on 12/26/04, which was 7:58:53 PM EST on 12/25/04. I have no idea what the monitoring rules and procedures are the USGS, but my guess is that they aren’t operating optimally on the evening of Christmas Day.

However, there is evidence to suggest that there was an attempt to warn the region by the USGS: US seismologists: We had no one to warn

US seismologists who tracked the massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Boxing Day said they knew a tsunami was moving through the Indian Ocean but had no contacts in the eventually affected countries.

That meant they could not pass along warnings - and when they were able to do so, as in Thailand and Indonesia, there was no response strategy in place to warn the affected communities.

Jan Egeland, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the affected nations have been more concerned with tracking the monsoons that are a frequent event and had devoted no resources to the once-in-a-century possibility of a major tsunami.

But Hilton Root, a Milken Institute senior fellow and a former US representative to the Asian Development Bank, points to a more basic problem than preoccupation with monsoons.


Existing systems of “tsunami meters” designed to give quick reaction time for the populations of the US, South America, the Philippines and Japan, for example, could be extended at a modest cost.

Scientists wanted to place two more of the devices in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, as part of a global warning system, but the plan has not been funded, said Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

The tsunameters each cost $250,000 and take about a month to build, Bernard said. “It has been vetted through a [United Nations commission] and they support it but there’s always a delay between proposal writing and deployment of the funds.”

But differences in the region - and even a robust antipathy to foreigners of any stripe - are a big obstacle, one that has impaired even some rescue and aid efforts.

So precisely how one can blame the situation on the US (let alone on the war on terror) is beyond me.

As the NYT notes, Sounding the Alarm on a Tsunami Is Complex and Expensive

If only people had been warned. An hour’s notice for those living and vacationing along the coastlines of the Indian Ocean might have saved thousands of lives.

But predictions, and acting on them, are not simple, geoscience experts say.

“It’s an inexact science now,” said Dr. Laura S. L. Kong, a Commerce Department seismologist and director of the International Tsunami Information Center, an office in Honolulu run under the auspices of the United Nations.

According to a NASA Web site devoted to tsunamis, three of four tsunami warnings issued since 1948 have been false, and the cost of the false alarms can be high.

An evacuation in Hawaii could cost as much as $68 million in lost productivity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Since the 1960’s, Dr. Kong said, there have been two warnings of tsunamis in Hawaii that ended in evacuations, and both were false alarms.

Dr. Kong said the predictions of tsunamis were, in fact, accurate: the waves do arrive, whether they are 40 feet high or a mere two inches. It is the destructive power of the wave that is hard to predict. That depends on many factors, including the configuration of the ocean floor and the shape of a bay.

The story notes that the Indian Ocean event’s destructive power was predictable, but that is knowing the magnitude of the quake. The above-cited stats on tsunami warnings does explain why these countries might have not pursued such a system in the past (although, no doubt, they will build them now).

On balance, however, the reaction that the devastation was preventable is a clear bias in our modern minds that says technology can fix anything. While there is no doubt in mind that an early warning system could have save some lives, I am similarly certain that the numbers of deaths would still have been stageringly high-it was simply that dramatic of an event.

Not only do I think it unlikely that a perfect system is possible to build, but I have doubts as to the degree to which people would have paid attention to the warning (heck, look at the people who ignore hurricaine warnings). Further, two hours isn’t all the long a period of time to disseminate the information-and that would assume immediate action from the moment that the earthquake was detected and a very good system for spreading the info in a very large and diverse place (far larger than Hawaii).

Again: I think that once this is done there is going to be a serious evaluation of such early warning systems (indeed, via Reuters: India says will set up tsunami warning system). However, my point from earlier was this isn’t the time to point fingers or to try and score political points. And above all, in our desire to assign blame we have to have a realistic view of exactly how preventable this situation really was.

Update: Part of today’s OTB Traffic Jam.

Filed under: Global Politics
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  1. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the elephants. . .

    Comment by Spear Shaker — Wednesday, December 29, 2004 @ 2:10 pm

  2. The key thing everyone misses about this is that this is a *once in a century* event. Not a very high priority on a list with a region facing civil war, poverty on massive scales, religious persecution, nuclear brinksmanship, and the other assorted second and third world problems of the region.

    As well, evacuation would take longer than people imagine. Remember when they called to evacuate New Orleans during the hurricanes this summer? They estimated it would take 72 hours to empty the city. How many of these areas have the sophisticated communications and road infrastruture that would make such an evacuation effective?

    Comment by bryan — Wednesday, December 29, 2004 @ 9:07 pm

  3. FYI Steven… “Glendale Oregon News” is about as accurate as tea leaves.

    I think it is one guy in his basement running an overgrown blog but I’m not sure. Either way they (he) have a horrible reputation.

    Comment by Paul — Thursday, December 30, 2004 @ 12:15 pm

  4. Fair enough. It didn’t lool like much, but the info seemed sounds enough as a basis for conversation.

    one thing I have noted: the two hour issue is one for one locale, not all locales. As my post this morningnoted-Indonesia and Malaysia had far less thatn two hours.

    Comment by Steven Taylor — Thursday, December 30, 2004 @ 12:22 pm

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