Second quake, faster response
The estimated toll from Monday's 8.7 quake near Sumatra ranges from 300 to 2,000.
Unlike the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands last December, Monday night's 8.7 earthquake spawned no tsunami waves of destruction. But for government officials, this week's powerful quake - among 10 of the strongest ever recorded - was a crucial test of the early warning systems they have in place, and one that exposed serious flaws.Skip to next paragraph
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Among the countries with quicker responses were Thailand and Sri Lanka. Thai police with loudspeakers fanned out to order thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate.
Slower on the draw were India and Indonesia. India's tsunami warning came at 11:30 p.m., nearly two hours after the quake. In Indonesia, thousands of coastal residents didn't wait for government warnings. They felt the quake and fled.
Compared with the Dec. 26 disaster, the death toll from this latest temblor was relatively low - anywhere from 300 to 2,000 predicted deaths, most of them concentrated at Indonesia's Nias Island. Citizens tempered by experience quickly sought safety. And relief efforts from the first quake seem unaffected thus far.
But the quake may serve as a prod for Indian Ocean nations to speed up their response times, and to create a unified early warning system like the multination system that operates in the Pacific Ocean.
"It's frustrating that with all the seismic networks that give us such good information, we still don't have the capability to quickly determine" the passing of tsunamis," says Costas Synolakis, director of the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California.
"What we do know is that people acted as their own tsunami warning system once they felt the earthquake," and headed for high ground, says Art Lerner-Lam, with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.
For residents of Indonesia's Nias Island, just 19 miles from the epicenter, there wasn't time to respond. Local officials say that the two-minute-long quake destroyed nearly 80 percent of the island's buildings, trapping or killing residents.
But elsewhere, Indonesians knew to seek higher ground, even without warnings. Foreign-aid workers say that the roads of Aceh's capital city of Banda quickly jammed with vehicles heading inland. Thousands of residents spent the night outdoors, as 12 major aftershocks followed the first massive quake at 11:09 p.m. Indonesian time.
"It was absolutely surreal," says Paul Dillon, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Banda Aceh. "We ran outside to see these ancient huge trees swaying in the middle of the trunk. Electrical towers were swaying back and forth like a picket fence on a windy day."
UN agencies and aid groups, who were already in the region and able to move quickly, mobilized helicopters and truck convoys to send food, medical supplies, and tents to Nias Island. The supplies were not diverted from current relief efforts. "We always maintain emergency supplies, so we are reverting to emergency stocks to meet the need in Nias," says Michele Lipner, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in Banda.
Officials with the government's disaster-management task force said that there was still no fully functioning tsunami early-warning alert system like that in the Eastern Pacific. The UN estimates a similar system will be in place by 2006.
Indonesian Information Minister Sofyan Djalil said Tuesday that the government was still planning a response after an emergency meeting and dispatching two ministers to Nias. Communications to Nias were still "very difficult," and that officials were waiting for police and military reports.
Indonesian officials say that the latest quake has not changed the master plan for rebuilding in Aceh where fresh damage appears to be light.
Thailand has already begun installing early-warning towers along Phuket's beaches. The towers link to a national disaster center and are designed to relay information to radio and TV stations and send text messages to Thailand's 20 million mobile-phone users. Towers in Patong Beach in Phuket, the first to be installed, broadcast a warning on Monday night that was heard at least a mile away.