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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 29, 2004

'Ewa center tried in vain to help

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By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Geophysicists frantically worked the phones from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach on Christmas night, trying largely in vain to warn Indian Ocean nations of the incoming tsunami disaster.

In vain, because in most of those nations, there is no warning mechanism. Tens of thousands were killed.

"The first thing, when you realize the quake is a magnitude 8, you go, 'Uh!' You feel that gut hit, that this guy is big," said Barry Hirshorn, one of the geophysicists on duty Saturday afternoon. The crisis built as the magnitude was recalculated to 8.5, and then revised to 9. Each upward revision indicated the quake was several times more powerful than the geophysicists initially thought. A magnitude 9 quake is 10 times stronger than one measuring 8.

Just days later, the same officials who tried to sound the alert are brainstorming the establishment of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system that will save lives when the next tsunami hits.

The International Tsunami Information Center in downtown Honolulu and the National Weather Service/Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in 'Ewa Beach are discussing what to do next and how to go about making sure this doesn't happen again, said Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center.

On the afternoon of Christmas Day in Honolulu, the 'Ewa Beach center issued a Pacificwide e-mail tsunami bulletin 18 minutes after the quake hit, but the crew quickly realized that most potential victims weren't among the center's Pacific nation clients. The biggest hit would be in the Indian Ocean. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's only Indian Ocean clients are Australia and Indonesia, which have both Pacific and Indian ocean coasts.

And the Indian Ocean, which had not had a tsunami in recorded history, has no oceanwide tsunami detection system, and no warning system.

The folks in Honolulu knew a disaster was on its way, but they had no way to alert the potential victims — the tourists on remote resort island beaches, people in coastal towns, those in fishing villages — from Indonesia to Africa, from India to scatterings of mid-oceanic coral islands, and all the coasts between.

"We started thinking about who we could call. We talked to the State Department Operations Center and to the military. We called embassies. We talked to the navy in Sri Lanka, any local government official we could get hold of," Hirshorn said. "We were fairly careful about who we called. We wanted to call people who could help."

He and fellow duty officer Stuart Weinstein quickly called in their boss, geophysicist-in-charge Charles "Chip" McCreery.

"The three of us were full-time using every line we had. At that point, everybody was getting, not crazy, but multitasking," Hirshorn said.

The desperate effort was to warn people thousands of miles away to get off their beaches. The frustration was knowing that even if government leaders could be reached, most countries had no effective civil defense mechanism for getting the information to the people.

"We spoke to people in the foreign ministries, and everywhere we could think of. We were collecting phone numbers, e-mail addresses — whatever contact information we could. There was a conference call with officials in Madagascar," Weinstein said.

The message, if it had reached people on the coasts, was simple: start walking away from the sea.

"You just have to be a 15-minute walk away from most coasts to be safe," Hirshorn said.

The geophysicists worked through the night and into Sunday, sounding the warning as the tsunami continued to sweep across the vast ocean basin, crushing one coastal area after another.

Within hours, as aftershocks repeatedly set off the 'Ewa Beach center's alarms, the tsunami warning community started working on ways to prevent a catastrophe like this one in any future Indian Ocean tsunami.

Officials said there are two key requirements for a good warning system: sensors to detect the earthquake and any resulting tsunami, and a mechanism for alerting the public.

Hirshorn said water-level gauges are needed along coastlines throughout the region, with data sent to the Pacific Tsunami Warning System and other interested agencies. That way, the size of the tsunami can be gauged and used to warn people next in line. He also recommended more expensive but critically important deep-ocean monitoring buoy systems that detect the power of tsunamis in the mid-ocean.

"If you have gauges, you can see what's going on. The upshot is, more gauges, more lives saved," he said.

The other end of an effective network is the local warning process. Nations in the region need to establish systems for letting people in danger zones know.

"Risk reduction involves not only a technology-based warning system which is able to effectively reach people on the beach at any moment, but also the component of education, awareness and preparedness which are essential to enable citizens to sensibly act during a local or distant tsunami," Kong said.

"There is much discussion being circulated internationally and within NOAA and the USGS on how to best assist and to move forward in a manner which will develop increased capacity by nations to mitigate the hazard," she said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.