After the Tsunami: The Blame Game

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An Indonesian woman stands among the ruins of her house in Pangandaran on Wednesday, two days after a tsunami struck and killed at least 530 people

Like thousands of Indonesians, Aesih Irawan went to the beach in west Java on Monday to have some fun with her friends. At her friend's house, near Pangandaran beach, she was drinking iced tea and watching TV when suddenly water came crashing through the living room. "Before I knew it I was underwater," recalls the 27-year-old housewife and mother of one. "There was no warning and we didn't even feel the earthquake."

Aesih heard people on the beach screaming that the water was rising, but there were no sirens, or messages on TV. For her and thousands of others, the tsunami that occurred 28 minutes after the earthquake on Monday came without warning. More than 20,000 families were displaced, thousands injured and more than 500 killed. Estimates of the physical damage are still being calculated, but dozens of hotels and restaurants were lost in what was once one of the country's top tourist destinations.

The tsunami that surprised Aesih (who survived after being tangled in cable and carried hundreds of yards down the beach) and so many other Indonesians revived questions about the country's early-warning system. Indonesian officials admit that no tsunami early warning system will be in place until the end of 2008, but deny that no warning was issued. "We issued a warning about the quake but not a tsunami," says Fauzi (he uses only one name), head of the Meterology and Geophysics Agency's technical department for tsunamis. He said the agency received an e-mail from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii 20 minutes after the quake, which was then passed on to 400 local authorities in charge of disaster management, as is standard procedure. The problem, he confesses, is what happens to the information after that. "It is not enough just to tell people," he says. "If they are not prepared and don't know to do you could create even more confusion and panic."

Indeed, the dissemination of quake warnings and possible tsunamis stands at the heart of accusations that Indonesia's Minister of Research and Technology, which heads development of the country's tsunami early warning system, failed to alert residents for fear of creating widespread panic. An official from the ministry denies blame for the failure and says the warning received from the PTWC was information on a "non-destructive" earthquake, not a tsunami. "There was a warning but not of a tsunami, and it would be irrelevant to send the warning to the minister because he is not in charge of alerting the public," explains Pariatmono, coordinator for development of the ministry's tsunami early warning system.

Pariatmono says that same "non-destructive" warning was on the PTWC website three hours after the magnitude 7.7 undersea quake erupted in the Indian ocean off the coast of Java, Indonesia's most-densely populated island. He points out also that the nationwide system is still three years from completion and is currently functioning only in Sumatra. "Even in Sumatra, the only place that is really prepared is in Padang," he says,referring to the capital of West Sumatra, where drills have been carried out and a program put in place. "The rest of the country is still very vulnerable."

Those are not reassuring words for a country that continues to get pounded by earthquakes nearly every day, though most are not felt inland. Meteorologist Fauzi says the country only has 30 seismograph detectors for the whole country but hopes to have 160 by 2009. Critics say the country needs to speed up development of a warning system or face the consequences. "You could have 100 tsunamis over the next three years," warns Omar Nawaz, coordinating officer for the World Tourism Organizations's tsunami task force. "That is way too long to wait." Nawaz helped develop a tsunami early-warning system in Sri Lanka, which utilizes temples and churches to alert the public. "In Sri Lanka the system is not very sophisticated but at least we have a plan," he added. "We learned our lesson, but it seems that Indonesia has not."

Comparing the vast archipelago of Indonesia to tiny Sri Lanka may be unfair, but Jakarta's failure to coordinate government agencies and officials has been apparent since the tsunami in Aceh two years ago killed more than 170,000 people and an earthquake left more than 5,800 people dead in central Java last May. Indonesia has made it clear that it will take millions of dollars, new technology and increased manpower to develop a tsunami warning system to cover the sprawling country. Integration into a regional system will also be critical to avoid the blame game now unfolding between Indonesia and the PTWC, which claims its warning was never passed on. One official envisions a system that will use mosques and churches along with sirens, radio, television and SMS text messaging, but says that many technical hurdles will have to be overcome. "Using SMS would be one of the best methods but it will require a lot of technical coordination to prevent jamming when sending out to tens of thousands of handphones," says Jan Sopa Heluwakan, deputy head of the Indonesian Institute of Science, one of the agencies working on the system. "But after the warning you still have to know what to do and that is where we are unprepared."

As Aesih came back to see if her friends were OK (one survived, another is still missing) that unpreparedness was all too evident. Nothing remained of her friend's house, and the beach was now littered with debris as far as the eye could see. "I am very happy to be alive," she says. "But every time I feel an aftershock I feel like that might change." As the country limps from one natural disaster to the next, millions of Indonesians will remain on edge.