Tsunami early warning systems in the Pacific are proving ineffective and basic knowledge is still lacking, says Richard Hamblyn, writer in residence at the Environment Institute in UCL.
When an undersea earthquake struck off the coast of Samoa last Tuesday, it was immediately registered at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, who issued warnings to several potentially affected islands.
Local authorities should then have distributed these to coastal populations through automated text messages but in New Zealand these arrived three hours late, and in Samoa no messages arrived at all.
Even more worrying, says Hamblyn, is that in Samoa it was the tsunami's second wave that caused many of the deaths, catching people as they went down to the beach to collect fish washed up by the first wave. This illustrates the chronic lack of awareness about even basic tsunami knowledge — that they come in multiple waves — among the island's coastal inhabitants.
"The situation in Indonesia is just as bad," says Hamblyn. He argues that if either of last week's two Sumatran earthquakes had caused a tsunami, the city of Padang would have been as unprotected as it was in December 2004.
The basic problem is a lack of detection buoys, which cost around $250,000 each and US$125,000 a year to maintain, for monitoring Indonesia's most vulnerable regions — despite US$30 million invested in developing an interim warning system.