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Tsunami warning: This time, the system mostly worked

Tsunami warning sirens sounded around the Indian Ocean region after an 8.6 earthquake hit yesterday. During the 2004 tsunami, few warning systems were in place. 

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When a quake hits, data is sent to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii and the Japan Meteorological Agency, which coordinate with national tsunami centres in the region.

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It can take 15 to 20 minutes for quake data to be analysed and a tsunami watch to be issued to governments and the public around the Indian Ocean. Using their own data, nations warn citizens in a variety of ways - from radio, television, and text messages to sirens and mosque loudspeakers.

In Sri Lanka, officials pressed a "tsunami evacuation" button from an emergency control room in Colombo that alerted 75 warning towers across the island. Within 20 minutes, three million people had moved from the seashore to safer places.

Thailand now has a national disaster warning center in Bangkok that coordinates with its six Andaman coast provinces. The system includes clearly marked evacuation routes, sirens and buoys out at sea that monitor tides.

"The hotel was very good, the staff were very good," said one man staying on Karon beach in Phuket. "They got us moving very quickly, so we feel very safe."

Police with megaphones

In India, authorities asked people to move away from the coast. Police in Chennai cleared Marina Beach and closed the coastal road.

On the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, officials were holding their quarterly disaster preparedness meeting half an hour before the earthquake struck. Most coastal villages on the islands were moved to higher ground after 2004 but police with megaphones evacuated some 2,000 people on Wednesday.

In Aceh, where several buildings suffered damage, including a prison, Armia, a disaster agency official, said the tsunami siren did not sound until 30 minutes after the quake.

"We understand that the ideal is to warn people of a tsunami five to 10 minutes after a quake. I wished we could have," he said. "The power was cut completely and the operators were too scared to turn on the backup power because we saw wires dangling in the street. We decided to turn on the siren in the end."

He said battery-powered sirens may be the answer.

* Writing by John O'Callaghan in Singapore and Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; Reporting by Reuters bureaux across Asia; Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani.

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