Delays in Warning System Frustrate Tsunami-Hit Nations

The United Nations is developing an early-warning system for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. But delays — and false alarms — have caused at least one country hit by last year's deadly tsunami to voice its frustration with the U.N. agency in charge of building the system.

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We've been hearing many stories this week marking the one-year anniversary of the tsunami wave that swept ashore in Asia, claiming more than 200,000 lives. Experts say that had a tsunami warning system been in place, fewer would have died. The United Nations is now putting together just such a warning system for the Indian Ocean, but progress has been slow, and some aid workers say technology alone is not the answer. NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Scientists say that giant tsunamis, like the one that devastated Asia a year ago, are extremely rare events. They happen only about once every 500 years. That fact, though, comes as little comfort to the people of Aceh, the Indonesian region hardest hit by last year's tsunami.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WEINER: This is a call-in radio show run by the Red Cross in Indonesia. A psychologist fields questions, and one topic dominates the conversation: fear; fear of the sea that has nourished fishing villages for centuries. Virgil Grandfield is a Red Cross spokesman based in Indonesia.

Mr. VIRGIL GRANDFIELD (Red Cross, Indonesia): Parents often mention that the kids are even afraid of rain. One caller the other night said that every time it rains, his son goes to the window--opens the door, goes to the window and then just watches the sea. You know, that sound of the water and just the fact that it's water has the--you know, the kids in quite a panic.

WEINER: That panic is fueled by local folklore; sometimes based on fact, sometimes not. A few months ago, for instance, the entire population of one village in Aceh suddenly fled to higher ground. Again, Virgil Grandfield.

Mr. GRANDFIELD: When we investigated this, it was found that one of the fishermen had felt that the water was hot. And there's a legend here that before a tsunami, the water will get hot, so just a fisherman coming into the town and saying that he felt hot water in the ocean was enough to evacuate a whole town.

WEINER: The UN is working to develop a tsunami warning system based on science, not folklore. It uses sensors, some deployed on the ocean floor, others on the surface, to detect sudden changes in pressure and sea levels. Within about 10 minutes, that information is relayed to observation stations on the ground. That's the plan, but the system is still at least a year away. Coordinating among 27 different countries has proved tricky. One official from Thailand accused the UN of producing more meetings than results. Others, like Red Cross spokesman Virgil Grandfield, point out that the best warning system in the world still needs people on the ground to spread the word of an approaching tsunami.

Mr. GRANDFIELD: If there are not volunteers or some system for getting the word out, just door to door or by bullhorns or even sending text messages by telephone, that sort of thing, if that isn't in place, then the system doesn't work.

WEINER: Several countries are trying to ensure that the system does work. Thailand has erected towers on beaches where loudspeakers broadcast tsunami warnings in six languages. There's still a few bugs in the system. Several false alarms sent people running in panic and led to a few injuries. Indonesia plans on holding tsunami simulations, evacuation drills designed to see how quickly people can get to higher ground. But they will have only about 20 minutes' warning, and Kerry Sieh of CalTech's Tectonics Observatory says some people probably won't make it in time.

Mr. KERRY SIEH (CalTech's Tectonics Observatory): For example, older people, really young kids, pregnant women, you know, people who are disabled--they can't run away. So what you can do is you can build vertical evacuation structures near the beach. You can build two-story, three-story, four-story platforms that people can simply walk upstairs to, you know--or take elevators up to or--you know, to get up to to watch the water go underneath them.

WEINER: A more drastic solution advocated by some aid agencies is to convince people to live farther from the coastline, either voluntarily or by law. But that seems unlikely. Many tsunami survivors still earn their living from the sea, and while they may now fear the ocean, they also depend on it. Eric Weiner, NPR News.

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