Another tsunami, and again, no official warnings

A warning system is in place for Sumatra island, but not Java, scene of Monday's wave.

Hundreds of families crowded into Pangandaran's central mosque Tuesday evening, one day after a series of high waves swept over the Indonesian beach town killing more than 300 people. Other survivors guarded against looters by camping outside their homes, ruined by the tsunami.

Pangandaran residents say the minor shaking from the offshore earthquake that triggered the wave initially failed to alarm most people in this quake-prone region.

"I just woke up when people screamed about a tsunami," says local resident Oji Suhaendi. "My family and I are safe because we ran away to the mosque like everyone else."

The latest tsunami to hit Indonesia has revived debate about how best to implement an early warning system to notify coastal residents of oncoming killer waves. And disaster relief officials here, confronted by the rapid succession of the 2004 tsunami, several major earthquakes, and a threatening volcano, are hoping that Monday's one-two punch of temblor and tsunami will prod the government to pass a stalled natural-disaster bill.

"We heard on the radio some people asking: 'Is this a real tsunami or not?' " says Eko Teguh Paripurno, a natural- disaster rescue worker and volcanologist in Yogjakarta. "An early warning system could have confirmed it."

Officials said 306 people were killed with another 160 or more missing. The magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck beneath the seabed of the Indian Ocean at about 3:15 p.m. and damaged some 110 miles of the southern coast of Indonesia's most populous island of Java.

The tallest waves were reported in Pangandaran, a sleepy beach-side resort town popular with locals and foreigners. Successive waves swept over the main street carrying with it cars, boats, and the remnants of seaside shops which slammed into adjacent buildings.

Many structures along the shore sustained heavy damage. Tiles under 12-foot high balconies were ripped away by the force of the surging water. Concrete walls showed gaping holes where the waves had swept in and deposited several inches of debris and sand. Debris also covered roads for more than 490 feet inland.

Buyung Hermonto owns the Anis hotel in Pangandaran. He was salvaging mattresses and furniture from remnannts of his hotel on Tuesday night.

"I ran upstairs and saw that the wave was about 6 meters [20 feet] high. The wave hit the walls of my hotel lobby and it collapsed," says Mr. Hermonto. "It was very fast ... by the time the wave reached the wall of the hotel [across the beach] it was 3 meters [10 fee] tall."

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 – when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake triggered a tsunami off Sumatra island – did a lot to educate Indonesia's 220 million people about the dangers of the sea. The tsunami left more than 170,000 people dead and helped to focus authorities' attention on the need for a better warning and evacuation system.

In local radio and TV reports, some residents said they had fled Monday for high ground after seeing the sea recede – something they learned was a warning sign from TV coverage of the 2004 tsunami. Others said they weren't sure if a tsunami was coming when the quake struck, as there was no official warning, only panicked cries from neighbors.

By the time the second wave hit several minutes later, military and police were reportedly cruising the streets urging an evacuation. Most people were already running for higher ground in the forested mountains of a nearby national park or the large mosque near the center of town.

Warnings were issued for parts of Australia, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued a tsunami bulletin soon after the earthquake struck. Indonesia's research and technology minister said that his country did receive warnings from regional agencies of a possible tsunami about 45 minutes before it struck – but failed to announce them, the Associated Press reported.

In the absence of official notice, some residents were reluctant to leave their houses or businesses due to reports of looting in the wake of the May 27 Yogjakarta temblor, when there was no tsunami.

Local media say Sumatra island has a tsunami warning system to alert people to leave coastal areas, but Java's is not due to start until 2007. The bureaucratic sluggishness in setting up warning-system infrastructure – or even simply passing along regional alerts through local media – have some rescue workers suggesting a more decentralized approach.

"We don't need fancy gadgets," says Mr. Paripurno. "We should just educate communities to the signs of a tsunami and what they should do."

Indonesia's busy relief workers now must turn attention to the victims of this latest disaster.

At least five hotels, 782 homes, 242 vehicles, and about 1,500 small shops were swept away or severely damaged by the tsunami, police said. Many thousands of people are believed to be displaced. So far, the majority of aid that has arrived consists of water, dried noodles, and medical care.

Hamonangan Nasoetion, the Dutch consul in the region, says recovery efforts here should learn from Aceh's shortcomings and provide reconstruction funds directly to those who need it.

"If some help can evolve out of this, it's don't do things the Aceh way," says Nasoetion, referring to relief funds that were distributed to aid agencies and the government. "Do it directly."

The Indonesian government, meanwhile, is divided over efforts to reform its disaster management institutions.

The 2004 tsunami prompted politicians in Jakarta to write a bill to create a new disaster management system. Under the 32-year rule of strongman Suharto, who resigned in 1998, Indonesia's military handled natural disasters. Parliament began debating a law in March 2005, which now remains deadlocked between the executive and the legislature.

In the interim, several natural disasters have befallen Indonesia, an archipelago that sits atop a tectonic perimeter known as the Ring of Fire.

The legislature and rescue workers are pushing for an independent institution to handle disaster management. The government, however, wants to retain those powers. "Let's hope this [latest disaster] pushes it through," said one volcanologist involved in drafting the bill.

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