A tsunami-warning system makes waves

Big lessons can be learned from Wednesday's giant earthquake off Indonesia that led to an Indian Ocean-wide tsunami warning. The new system, set up since the big 2004 disaster, worked.

Binsar Bakkara/AP Photo
Indonesian women make phone calls as they evacuate a mall after a strong earthquake was felt in Medan, Sumatra, on Wednesday.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed, wrote Cervantes, and that saying proved its worth Wednesday when countries around the Indian Ocean reacted well to a tsunami alert sent out after a magnitude-8.6 earthquake off Indonesia.

Memories were still fresh enough in the region from the devastating 2004 tsunami that many people evacuated quickly. While they can be grateful that the quake created only slightly higher than normal waves, they should also rejoice over a new tsunami-warning system in place since 2006.

It includes buoys in the ocean to measure water levels, sirens along coastal communities, and the latest telecommunication to send alerts. Also, tsunami shelters have been built that can hold hundreds of people. Escape routes are now better marked.

By early accounts, the system worked well, all the way from Thailand to Sri Lanka to Africa. Also helping was a higher number of cellphone users who spread the word to speedily head for higher ground.

Still, much needs to be done to build up tsunami-warning systems along all oceans and seas. Studies shows that prompt alerts save lives. In the United States, for instance, better warnings of hurricanes and tornadoes have led to more people taking shelter quickly or evacuating to avoid potential danger.

But even those systems need constant updates. Last week, for instance, the first government-backed alert system for mobile phones went live in the US. Called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, it sends out geographically specific emergency alerts – similar to text messages – to cellphones specially equipped to receive them. The alerts include imminent threats, Amber alerts, and emergency presidential messages.

After last year's tsunami that devastated entire communities, Japan is trying to improve on its alert system. And sometimes, a system can have a software glitch, as happened last month in a new automated call system in Colorado designed to alert residents of forest fires.

Disaster experts worry most about mass complacency. Too many false alarms can lead to apathy, similar to tuning out the sound of a car alarm. To overcome that, the National Weather Service plans to juice up its warning language. Instead of using phrases like “tornado watch,” it is testing alerts with hair-raising words like “unsurvivable” and “mass devastation.”

Another concern is how to design alerts that convey a clear understanding of a threat but that don’t cause panic. That requires accurate information of a possible disaster combined with precise details on available options.

A recent Harris poll found that a majority of Americans are prepared to turn off the electricity, gas, and water in their homes or are stocked up with supplies in case of a catastrophic disaster. Most rely on television for emergency alerts. But other media, such as text messages, are gaining in popularity.

Despite that, one-third of Americans who are warned of an approaching hurricane would refuse to evacuate if told to do so by a government official, according to a Harvard School of Public Health survey.

Rapid and credible dissemination of disaster warnings is one thing. But the public must also be educated long before a disaster on both the need to react and how to do it.

The reaction to the latest Indian Ocean quake can serve as an example of a warning system that worked. Like a fire drill, it will serve as a lesson on how to take precautionary steps – without panicking – when needed. Preparedness is half the victory.

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