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Did Tsunami Warning Reach Samoa On Time?

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Did Tsunami Warning Reach Samoa On Time?

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Did Tsunami Warning Reach Samoa On Time?

Did Tsunami Warning Reach Samoa On Time?

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An earthquake early Tuesday in the south Pacific sent tsunami waves crashing into Samoa and American Samoa. Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, says he isn't sure if the warning reached people in time. But, he says, there would have been natural warning signs of a tsunami.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now news of two powerful earthquakes thousands of miles apart. Earlier today, a magnitude 7.6 quake struck western Indonesia. Hardest hit appears to be the city of Padang on the island of Sumatra. The earthquake toppled buildings, including two hospitals, and killed between 100 and 200 people. That number is expected to rise. The quake occurred along the same fault line that triggered the devastating tsunami in 2004.

SIEGEL: The other quake, a magnitude 8.0, occurred yesterday in the South Pacific not far from Samoa and American Samoa. It created a series of 15 to 20 foot tsunami waves wiping out villages. More than 100 people have died there and dozens more are missing.

BLOCK: A tsunami warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii and Charles McCreery is director there. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHARLES MCCREERY (Director, Pacific Tsunami Warning Center): Thank you.

BLOCK: And did that warning actually reach people in time?

Mr. MCCREERY: We're not sure that it did. We do know that our bulletin went out before tsunami waves arrived in American Samoa or Western Samoa, the country of Samoa. However, you know, we're not sure at this point the chain of events that took place after our bulletin arrived and whether or not they were able to get those warnings out.

There would've been natural warning signs, however, and there have been efforts made to try and do some education in that area so people know that if they feel the strong shaking, that's a natural warning sign of the tsunami.

BLOCK: Don't wait for a bulletin and head for higher ground.

Mr. MCCREERY: Exactly. And that's really the strategy that has to be adopted in all places that have a threat of a local tsunami, is don't wait for an official warning. Because even if one is issued, if you're in the area where the strong shaking occurred, the infrastructure to carry that warning to you may have been damaged, so you can't count on an official warning.

BLOCK: When your center, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, sends out a bulletin to countries, they get that, and then how do they try to transmit that information to the people? Are there sirens? Is it text messages, radio messages? How does it work?

Mr. MCCREERY: It can vary from place to place. Sirens are pretty expensive, so in a lot of countries they can't afford to have a siren system. But they can use alternate methods. In Indonesia, for example, it can go through the mosques. Most mosques have some kind of system that they broadcast their daily prayer in and so those kinds of systems be used. In the country of Samoa, for example, they contact the local chiefs, school teachers in the village and that's how the alert gets out. So it's a bit of a creative thinking that has to go on - is what's the best way for each place?

BLOCK: You know, thinking back to 2004 and the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean where more than 200,000 people were killed, there was a lot of talk about a better warning system. There wasn't one in place in the Indian Ocean at that time. Where are we right now with that?

Mr. MCCREERY: Well, there's been tremendous improvement in the Indian Ocean, which had no system whatsoever before the 2004 event. They now have warning centers in Australia, in Indonesia, in India, in Thailand. There are sea level gauges around the Indian Ocean that are reporting back to those countries in near real time so that they can monitor the tsunami. None of that existed before 2004. But the Pacific has also benefited because there's more sea level gauges around the Pacific.

In 2004 we only had six of the deep ocean gauges in the Pacific and now we have 32, and we used several of those yesterday. The biggest challenge to tsunami warning remains, really, keeping people aware of and knowledgeable about this hazard so that when they strike, people do the right thing. And as you can imagine, when it's 50 years or 100 years between events, everybody in the whole system, including people at the warning centers, all the emergency managers, it will be the first time they ever deal with this and probably the only time in their life they ever deal with it. Yet they have to do the right thing in a very short amount of time.

BLOCK: Charles McCreery, thanks very much.

Mr. MCCREERY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Charles McCreery is director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

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Relief Efforts Under Way In Tsunami-Ravaged Pacific

  • An 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck on Sept. 29 in the Pacific Ocean, creating a tsunami that devestated the Samoa islands and Tonga. Hihifo, on the western side of Tonga, experienced a large amount of flooding and devastation.
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    An 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck on Sept. 29 in the Pacific Ocean, creating a tsunami that devestated the Samoa islands and Tonga. Hihifo, on the western side of Tonga, experienced a large amount of flooding and devastation.
    Pesi Fonua/Vava'u Press Ltd via AP
  • A truck lies inside a damaged building in Pago Pago village, American Samoa.
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    A truck lies inside a damaged building in Pago Pago village, American Samoa.
    John Newton/AFP/Getty Images
  • A damaged boat inside a building in Pago Pago village, American Samoa.
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    A damaged boat inside a building in Pago Pago village, American Samoa.
    John Newton/AFP/Getty Images
  • People walk amid the wreckage in Pago Pago village, Sept. 30.
    Hide caption
    People walk amid the wreckage in Pago Pago village, Sept. 30.
    Ausage Fausia/SamoaNews.com via AP
  • A main road in the downtown area of Fagatogo, American Samoa, is flooded by water on Sept. 29.
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    A main road in the downtown area of Fagatogo, American Samoa, is flooded by water on Sept. 29.
    Fili Sagapolutele/AP

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Military transports ferried disaster relief supplies into the Samoas on Wednesday, a day after the islands bore the brunt of a devastating earthquake-fueled tsunami that killed at least 149 people and left a wake of destruction across the South Pacific.

Officials expect the death toll to rise as more areas are searched.

Signs of destruction were everywhere in Samoa and American Samoa, the islands closest to the magnitude 8.0 quake that triggered the killer waves.

Streets and fields in American Samoa's capital, Pago Pago, were filled with debris, mud, overturned cars and several boats as a massive cleanup effort stretched into the night. Several buildings in the city just a few feet above sea level were flattened. Power was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month.

President Obama has declared the U.S. territory a major disaster area, and military transports carrying medical personnel, food, water, medicines and other supplies were headed to the stricken islands.

"Right now, we're focused on bringing in the assistance for people that have been injured, and for the immediate needs of the tens of thousands of survivors down there," said Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate.

A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying FEMA officials was headed from Hawaii to Pago Pago, where debris had been cleared from runways to allow emergency planes to land.

"We're getting reports just like everyone else that this is a significant impact," Fugate said.

Heard On NPR

The temblor struck at 6:48 a.m. local time Tuesday. It was centered about 120 miles from American Samoa, home to 65,000 people, and 125 miles from Samoa, an island nation of 180,000 located about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.

Residents on both islands reported being shaken awake by the quake, which lasted two to three minutes and was centered about 20 miles below the ocean floor. It was followed by at least three large aftershocks of at least 5.6 magnitude.

Four tsunamis 15 to 20 feet high smashed ashore on American Samoa, causing flooding up to a mile inland, Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying by a spokeswoman.

Less than a day later, another powerful temblor hit far to the west in Indonesia, reportedly killing at least 75 people. Experts said the seismic events were not related.

At least 30 people were killed in American Samoa, said Gov. Togiola Tulafono, who added that a member of his extended family was among the dead. He said the toll is expected to rise as emergency crews work to recover bodies.

Because of the closeness of the community, "each and every family is going to be affected by someone who's lost their life," Tulafono said in Hawaii as he boarded a Coast Guard C-130 plane to return home.

FEMA was flying into American Samoa with food, water and repair supplies early Wednesday, and officials are anticipating the worst. Fugate said "tens of thousands" of survivors, many of whom were injured, will need assistance.

Major Earthquakes

Map showing the location of an earthquake in Samoa and one in Indonesia

In Samoa, a senior disaster relief official said the nation's death toll from the tsunami had reached 83. Filomina Nelson, Samoa National Disaster Management committee member, said the number of deaths may rise as rescue workers search the devastated areas.

The Samoa Red Cross said it had opened five temporary shelters and estimated that about 15,000 people were affected by the tsunami.

A resort owner in Samoa told NPR that people saw the waters recede out to the coastal reef immediately after the quake struck.

"They knew something was happening and they made for higher ground," Maposua Norman Paul said.

"Others didn't make it. At this hour, they are still searching for people's bodies, [some of which] have been recovered, some have not been recovered," he said. "Five minutes from when the earthquake struck to when the tsunami hit is just not ample time for people to get to higher ground. No way."

"Kids were walking along the main road going to school, workers were getting up to catch transportation to get to work," Paul added. "That's the area that was hardest hit, and that's total destruction there."

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi looked shaken Wednesday onboard a flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to the Samoan capital of Apia.

"So much has gone. So many people are gone," he told reporters onboard. "I'm so shocked, so saddened by all the loss." Malielegaoi said his own village of Lepa was destroyed.

"Thankfully, the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to climb to higher ground," he said. "But not everyone escaped."

Tongan authorities said at least six people had died in the low-lying island nation west of the Samoas, according to New Zealand's acting prime minister, Bill English. He said Tongan officials told him that four people were missing after the tsunami swept ashore on the northern island of Niua.

"There are a considerable number of people who've been swept out to sea and are unaccounted for," English said. "We don't have information about the full impact, and we do have some real concern that over the next 12 hours the picture could look worse rather than better."

A New Zealand P3 Orion maritime surveillance airplane reached the region Wednesday afternoon to search for survivors off the coast, he said. It was expected to resume searching at first light.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Seven Network that two Australians had died in the tsunami, including a 6-year-old girl.

Although the quakes in the Samoas and Indonesia struck within 24 hours of each other, experts said there was no link between them.

"When you look at that, it's like, 'Oh, something's going on there.' But researchers are convinced that because quakes are essentially a random process that they're not related," said Don Blakeman, an analyst for the U.S.-based National Earthquake Information Center.

Various factors explain why the Samoa earthquake caused a massive tsunami and the Indonesia quake, with a magnitude of 7.6, did not.

The difference in magnitude is one factor, Blakeman said. "It also has to do with the depth of earthquakes. The Samoan one was very shallow. The Sumatran one, I think, was about 80 kilometers [49 miles]."

From NPR staff and wire reports

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