Are We Ready for Another Tsunami?

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Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty

An aerial picture shows the devastated area of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, following the tsunami disasters, January 20, 2005.

Wednesday's massive earthquake near Indonesia was distressingly similar to the one that killed over 220,000 people in December of 2004. Both happened off the coast of Sumatra and put at least a dozen other countries at risk of tsunami. Yesterday's magnitude-8.4 quake was smaller than the 9.1 of 2004, but only slightly. Tall buildings swayed in Jakarta, and some high-rises were evacuated in Singapore. And less than 24 hours later, the quake was followed by a second and third temblor in the same area, which brought buildings down in the coastal Indonesian city of Padang and triggered more tsunami warnings around the region.

So far, the damage appears to be much less serious than the 2004 disaster — thankfully. It's too early to guess at a body count, but most of the destruction will probably come from the quakes themselves, not from a tsunami.

Three years after one of the worst disasters in history, though, the quakes pose worrisome questions: are we any more prepared? Has any progress been made in building better tsunami warning systems? Or can we expect another holocaust any day now?

One thing, at least, has changed dramatically. The first earthquake happened at 11:10 universal time. Although it occurred in the Indian Ocean, it was detected by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, headquartered in Hawaii, which has the most extensive tsunami warning system around — largely because the Pacific Ocean is where 70% of the world's earthquakes normally happen.

The 2004 quake was quickly detected by the Pacific Center, too, so that's no big deal unto itself. This time, though, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (and a Japanese warning system that also noticed the earthquake) knew what to do with the information. Fourteen minutes after the tremor, the Pacific Center sent a bulletin around the world, warning all at-risk nations that there might be a tsunami and estimating when it might strike, to the minute. Those channels of communication simply didn't exist in 2004. Basic as it may seem, this across-the-water communication represents a huge breakthrough.

But a warning only helps if someone passes it along. And here's where things get dicey all over again. "Presumably all of the countries should have gotten that bulletin in minutes," says Lori Dengler, a geology professor and tsunami expert at Humboldt State University in California. "Then it becomes an internal decision to decide whether to call a tsunami warning in their country. Because we're dealing with sovereign nations, that makes it complex."

Each nation on the Indian Ocean has its own procedure — or lack thereof — for what to do next. They decide whether to issue a public warning, whether to call for an evacuation and how to do it in a way that people understand. In some places, like southern Bangladesh, a warning to evacuate was disseminated by police over loudspeakers four hours before the tsunami might have arrived, and many people rushed to high ground.

But in Indonesia, the last test run didn't go so well. In July 2006, a major earthquake caused a tsunami, headed for Java. The Indonesian government received the alert, but the island of Java still had no real warning system. More than 600 people died.

Indonesia's ability to communicate with the public has improved since the Java fiasco, says Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Centre. And to be fair, it's a difficult problem. Disseminating an effective warning fast is complicated. There is currently much debate in emergency-management circles over the relative merits of sirens, text messages and other high-tech gadgetry. The state of California has not yet figured out the best way to get a tsunami alert to its coastal residents; Indonesia, in comparison, must spread the word to 235 million people who speak hundreds of dialects.

But there are simpler ways to avoid tsunami fatalities. Before most waves strike, the ground shakes or the sea recedes dramatically. In some areas, everyone knows that these signs mean you must head for high ground; in most places, though, people are unaware of the warning signs. In Thailand, which lost 5,400 people in the Indian Ocean tsunami three years ago — half of them tourists — many hotels still do not educate guests about these simple clues. "Putting up a danger sign is bad for business," says Kong. "The businesses, and hotels in particular, are wary." It's a shocking lapse, but not an uncommon one: Kong has run into the same attitude in Hawaii hotels and has learned to temper her expectations. She hopes that at the least, front-desk staff and other key hotel employees can be trained on recognizing the signs of a tsunami to assist guests in an emergency. "We just have to be practical and reasonable."

Overall, however, Kong believes that we're much better off than we were a couple of years ago. If the 2004 tsunami happened again today in exactly the same way, the death toll would be lower, she says. That's good, since we can expect more of them. A major incident like the 2004 quake puts geological stress on the entire region — not the most stable in the world to begin with — which helps explain why we have seen more magnitude-8 or larger quakes there than normal. Especially in Indonesia, nestled right in the middle of a nest of earthquake faults, it can only be a matter of time.