Tsunami Scare Shows Gaps as Thousands Miss Quake Warnings

Indonesia Hit by 8.6-Magnitude Quake, Tsunami Alerts Issued
Acehnese people try to go to higher places shortly after a powerfull earthquake hit the western coast of Sumatera in Banda Aceh. Photographer: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

Khairil Razali thought a tire had blown out as his white Mitsubishi Strada pickup shuddered on the road as he drove to Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra.

As he pulled over, the 34-year-old manager at the Indonesian Red Cross saw hordes of people racing out of houses and realized what was happening: an earthquake.

The 8.6-magnitude temblor and aftershocks in the Indian Ocean on April 11 and ensuing tsunami warnings brought back memories of the waves that ravaged the 12 countries and killed 220,000 people in 2004. While tsunami detection systems appear to have worked, the quake exposed flaws in the diffusion of warnings and effectiveness of evacuation plans, said officials including Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, head of Indonesia’s national disaster management agency’s data and information center.

“I saw people jump out from the second floor of their houses and rappelling down using ropes in panic,” Razali said in a phone interview. “Yells of ‘God is great’ were endless as they spilled into the streets, bringing back the 2004 trauma.”

Unlike the 2004 quake, the recent temblor didn’t create a lethal tsunami. Ten people died, including seven who had heart attacks, and 12 were injured, Nugroho said. The most severe structural damages were to a bridge, a prison and a dormitory school, he said.

Master Plan

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered that a master plan be drawn up to rectify flaws and ensure lives are protected, pledging to fund the infrastructure needed to improve readiness. The country may spend 3 trillion rupiah ($327 million) to 5 trillion rupiah to add more shelters and tsunami detection devices in 2013 and 2014, Nugroho said.

Tsunami warnings by national authorities and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center came minutes after the initial quake.

Preliminary information was sent within 10 minutes via short text messages to the disaster management agencies and media in Malaysia, advising the public to stay away from the beaches in the states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang and Perak, Yap Kok Seng, a director-general of Malaysia’s Meteorological Department, said in an e-mailed statement on April 16.

“We received the information from all international agencies such as in the U.S. and Japan immediately after the earthquake occurred,” Somsak Kaosuwan, director of Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Center, said in a phone interview the day after the quake.

Technology Reliance

Methods of spreading the warnings to people on the ground, including mass e-mails, short text messages to mobile phones, faxes and website postings, worked to varying degrees as telecommunications networks were overloaded, according to phone companies and government officials. The Jakarta-based Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency also used its Twitter account to alert its 275,000 followers.

A surge in people seeking information online brought down official websites in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

“An overwhelming number of people tried to access our website to check for information, causing the website to crash for some time,” Thailand’s Kaosuwan said. “We will increase the capacity.”

The Indonesian meteorology agency plans to distribute quake information through other governmental websites after 400,000 visitors tried to access its website at the same time, shutting it down for hours, Prih Harjadi, the agency’s deputy of geophysics, said in a phone interview from Jakarta.

Silent Sirens

The Malaysian meteorological agency, which also experienced website issues, is working on ways to ensure “system availability during such episodes where network access traffic would increase drastically,” Yap said.

Wireless networks were clogged by the surge in calls, delaying or stopping short text messages, known as SMSs, from reaching people, according to Djarot Handoko, a spokesman for PT Indosat, Indonesia’s second-largest mobile-phone company. Mobile traffic surged 75 percent after the earthquake, he said.

Some physical warning systems put in place after 2004, including sirens, failed to work properly. The only siren that blared in Banda Aceh had to be turned on manually after power was cut, Harjadi said.

Indonesia, with the world’s fourth-largest population, installed 34 early warning sirens across the nation, spanning 5,150 kilometers (3,200 miles), the distance from Florida to Alaska. Indonesia plans to have 1,000 sirens, Nugroho said. Of 25 tsunami buoys, only three operated correctly, he said.

Survival Instincts

Two power plants in Belawan and Banda Aceh were disrupted, with electricity completely restored about five hours after the quake, said Bambang Dwiyanto, a spokesman at PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara, the state-owned utility.

As warnings spread across the region and reached those at risk, survival instincts took over. Many ignored instructions to leave motorcycles or cars behind and to run for higher ground, clogging up roads and intersections. With motorists attempting to drive away from Banda Aceh, a city of 222,000, traffic ground to a halt and added to the potential casualties.

“We need more evacuation boards, routes, meeting points and training,” said Indonesia’s Nugroho, whose agency has recorded 1,712 tsunamis across the nation since 1629.

The agency is seeking the collaboration of local governments in providing emergency routes and taking care of signboards and shelters after some infrastructure was lost or stolen, Nugroho said.

Empty Shelters

In Thailand, most locals and foreigners at resorts followed evacuation orders according to plan, Thailand’s Kaosuwan said. “Yet there were people in some remote areas that failed to follow the instructions and guidelines. We have to educate them for future disasters.”

Thailand’s beach resorts of Phuket and Krabi were among the worst-hit tourist destinations in 2004.

A vertical shelter in Aceh with a capacity of 1,000 people was used by only 46 people, Nugroho said.

Such shelters include high-rise buildings, bridges and man-made hills. Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province, has seven of them. The city of 833,000 inhabitants would need 300 to 500 shelters, according to Nugroho.

Relief efforts in the 2004 tsunami were hampered by a lack of roads and communication in remote areas such as Aceh, which also suffered from conflict between the government and a rebel separatist movement at the time. The devastation paved the way for a peace agreement in 2005.

More evacuation drills must be performed, Razali of the Red Cross said.

Ring of Fire

Indonesia’s 18,000 islands sit along the Pacific’s “ring of fire” zone of active volcanoes and tectonic faults. Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, is one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces, where 170,000 people died or went missing in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

A 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck off Indonesia’s West Papua in the morning of April 21.

President Yudhoyono has ordered the National Disaster Management Agency to design a master plan to anticipate disasters and expects to get a proposal within two months, Julian Aldrin Pasha, the presidential spokesman, said April 16.

“The Indonesian government will fund the infrastructure through the 2013 budget, while local governments should be responsible for maintenance,” the spokesman said.

The April 11 earthquake and tsunami panic soon turned to relief, as deadly waves never materialized, and warnings started coming down about four hours later.

Makeshift Megaphone

Where warning systems failed, people on the ground did what they could to spread the message.

The Red Cross’s Razali, when he realized a quake had struck, hurried to tune in to the citizen radio network called Radio Antar Penduduk Indonesia, the Indonesian Inter-Citizen Radio. Instinctively, he raised the radio’s volume, plugged it into his walkie-talkie, which Indonesians call handy-talkies or HTs, and hung it outside his window before resuming his journey to the city of Banda Aceh, driving the remaining 1.5 kilometers slowly.

“People were able to hear the latest information about a possible tsunami and aftershocks from our handy-talky,” Razali said.

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