In the late 1990s, I lived in Hawaii for a few years, including a stretch where we lived at about 10 feet above sea level about 3 blocks from the sea. Hawaii is very tsunami-aware, from hard experience (in particular, a legendary 1946 tsunami killed over a hundred people), and Hawaii has warning sirens near the coasts in populated areas and has published maps of risk zones and evacuation information in the front of telephone books. Living there, it was impossible not to be aware of the risks.
Sadly, due to the rarity of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean region devastated over the weekend, that does not appear to have been the case in those places.
From the New York Times:
HONOLULU, Dec. 27 - When experts at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu were first alerted that an earthquake had struck Sunday off Indonesia, they had no way of knowing that it had generated a devastating tsunami and no way to warn the people most likely to suffer.
Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, which has no system for detecting them and alerting those in danger, and scientists do not have the tools to tell when an earthquake has created one.
Not until the deadly wave hit Sri Lanka and the scientists in Honolulu saw news reports of the damage there did they recognize what was happening.
"Then we knew there was something moving across the Indian Ocean," said Dr. Charles McCreery, the center's director.
"We wanted to try to do something, but without a plan in place then, it was not an effective way to issue a warning, or to have it acted upon," Dr. McCreery said. "There would have still been some time - not a lot of time, but some time - if there was something that could be done in Madagascar, or on the coast of Africa."
The first notice of the earthquake that anyone at the Pacific tsunami center received was a computer-generated page set off by seismic sensors at 2:59 p.m. on Saturday Honolulu time. The immediate message received by people like Laura S. L. Kong, a Department of Commerce expert who is the head of a United Nations tsunami education center in Hawaii, included the time of the quake, latitude, longitude and an initial estimate of magnitude, about 8.0.
Nobody was in the office of the Pacific tsunami center. But staff members who received the pages reached the office, took a closer look at available data and sent out a warning to a preset list of contacts around the Pacific.
The center was advising of sea level changes in Fiji, Chile and California measured in inches, the echo of a distant event that had sloshed through the straits that connect the oceans. The warning center continued to refine its estimate of the quake, eventually raising it to a magnitude of 9.0, which is 10 times more powerful than the initial estimate of 8.0, because the scale is logarithmic.
The Pacific center, operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, faced two problems in recognizing what was occurring in the Indian Ocean and alerting potential victims. There is no direct connection between an earthquake magnitude and a resulting tsunami. Not all quakes under the ocean lift the ocean floor to displace the water needed to create a tsunami.
For the Pacific, there are computer models to analyze the consequences of an earthquake, based on years of observations of previous quakes and tsunamis. For the Indian Ocean, there are no such models, according to Vasily V. Titov, a research oceanographer with the Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, based in Seattle. "They assemble quite a bit of data to get the right information and the right warning message," he said of such models.
Another difficulty is that countries that have experienced tsunamis in recent memory are set up with warning systems. Hawaii, for example, has warning sirens, and the "weather radio" network of oceanographic administration can also carry tsunami warnings.
"Based on it being an 8.0, we assumed the damage would be confined to Sumatra and would be a local tsunami event, one that strikes shore within minutes of the event," he said. "We weren't overly concerned at that point that it was something larger."
But using another, sometimes more accurate method of measuring, Dr. McCreery said, the staff quickly determined that the magnitude had been closer to 8.5, more intense, but still only borderline for generating more distant damage. The center issued a follow-up bulletin.
But it was not until they saw news reports of casualties in Sri Lanka that all that changed.
One of the few places in the Indian Ocean that got the message of the quake was Diego Garcia, a speck of an island with a United States Navy base, because the Pacific warning center's contact list includes the Navy. Finding the appropriate people in Sri Lanka or India was harder.
The experts knew they were set up for the wrong ocean, but over a holiday weekend, Dr. Kong said, "it's tough to find contact information."
Mark Kleiman comes through with a common-sense suggestion:
But if you're an American seismologist and your problem is to get a tsunami warning to folks in Sri Lanka, India, and Burma within a couple of hours, surely calling people in those countries and hoping that the governments will be able to improvise a warning system must be the wrong way to go.
Why not call CNN, the Associated Press, and Reuters? They're in the business of putting out information, and they put it out in a way that gets directly to senior public officials as well as to lots of ordinary folks who might live on, or have friends or relatives on, the relevant coastlines.
I promise you, a phone call from the International Tsunami Information Center saying "There's just been a Richter 9.0 quake in Sumatra and a big tsunami will hit the following places at the following times" will receive the undivided attention of any newsdesk in the world.
If you want to put a system in place, put it in place with the news organizations, so you have the direct-line phone numbers of the assignment desks and can send out an authenticated e-mail showing it's not a hoax. And the media process builds in redundancy; if CNN or AP or Reuters carries a big, breaking story, the others will have it within minutes.
[Or skip all that and just phone it in to Drudge with a hint that the earthquake was Kerry's fault. That's the fastest way to get a story out, true or false.]
Yes, it would be better to have an intergovernmental system in place as well. But that will take months. The news-media system could be up and running in a week.
One (slight) problem I see with Kleiman's suggestion is that, without the monitors in place, no one knows for sure if a tsunami has actually been generated, so no one can actually say "a big tsunami will hit the following places." But still, it seems prudent to use such a system in the meantime, perhaps by issuing alerts like "tsunami watches," comparable to "tornado watches."