Questions are still seething
about the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami.
I'll avoid the ones about what set off
the quake, although speculation is rife
about nuclear, and more controversially,
electromagnetic technology, some of
it referencing a remark by then defense
Secretary William Cohen that admits
to on-going research in environmental
weaponry (DOD briefing, Monday, April
28, 1997 at the University of Georgia).
I'll skip the other set of questions
too about why the aid effort seems to
be highly politicized and militarized
or what long-term strategy may be served
by the penetration of South Asia by
spy satellites and soldiers when some
of the countries there are battling
insurgencies and others are making economic
changes crucial to the world financial
markets. The truth is, under Secretary
Rumsfeld's watch, civilian and military
functions have become so melded together
that it's likely military involvement
is unavoidable in the humanitarian efforts.
As for what the governments in the Asian
countries did wrong, so far it's not
clear what kind of warnings they received
and when, what types of seismic detectors
they had, and whether those were sufficient
to predict tsunamis. As it stands, the
most sophisticated monitoring equipment
was in the Pacific warning system and
only that equipment could really have
estimated the size and direction of
the waves. So it makes sense to ask
why this sophisticated network simply
didn't do anything at all when it came
to preventing what looks right now as
the biggest natural disaster of the
I'll start with the troubling
inconsistencies in the statements that
have come out of the scientists and
bureaucrats involved. Most important
of these is NOAA. That's the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland
under the U.S. Department of Commerce.
NOAA runs the National Weather Service,
whose Pacific HQ is at Honolulu, Hawaii.
The part of the service that monitors
tsunamis is the Pacific Tsunami Warning
Center (PTWC) located on Ewa beach on
Oahu Island in Hawaii. The International
Tsunami Information Center (the ITIC),
the department that extends information
internationally, is not at Ewa but at
the Honolulu HQ. Pressure readings from
the sea floor are sent to NOAA's weather
satellites, and then analyzed at NOAA's
tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and
Alaska, from where alerts go out.
The International Center was
established by UNESCO and according
to its website, "it maintains and develops
relationships with scientific research
and academic organizations, civil defense
agencies, and the general public in
order to carry out its mission to mitigate
the hazards associated with tsunamis
by improving tsunami preparedness for
all Pacific Ocean nations." To repeat
-- their mandate is to extend warnings
to ALL Pacific Ocean countries. Their
26 member countries include Indonesia
and Thailand, as well as China, the
Russian Federation, United States of
America, Australia and others, but not
India and Sri Lanka.
Why weren't Indonesia and
Thailand specifically mentioned?
Forgetting India and Sri Lanka
for the moment, let's take a look at
what NOAA has to say about the failure
to get through to Indonesia and Thailand.
Here is Bulletin 1 issued at 1:14 GMT.
Remember Hawaii is about 10 hrs behind
GMT, so at Ewa Beach it's Christmas
Day around 3 pm. The quake hit on the
26th at about 7:58 am local time in
Indonesia. The quake is rated 8 on the
Richter scale, which makes it "great."
ISSUED AT 0114Z 26 DEC 2004
THIS EARTHQUAKE IS LOCATED OUTSIDE THE
PACIFIC. NO DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI THREAT
EXISTS BASED ON HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE
AND TSUNAMI DATA. THIS WILL BE THE ONLY
BULLETIN ISSUED FOR THIS EVENT UNLESS
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE.
The earthquake is outside
the Pacific but there is NO specific
reference to the two member countries
-- Indonesia and Thailand -- who would
certainly be affected by a quake in
the Indian Ocean. Some reports claim
that bulletins went to Thailand and
Indonesia, but Ian Herbert in The
Independent (UK) on December 28
says the bulletin was sent to all the
member countries including Australia
and Indonesia but NOT to Thailand. AP
reports that even Indonesia was only
contacted indirectly through Australia.
Why? The Independent article
indicates that Australian scientists
on Cocos Island were able to contact
Thai officials (as well as Indonesian).
If so, why wasn't NOAA able to get through
The bulletin's tone is also
quite laconic and bland. Jeff LaDouce,
the Weather Service Director at NOAA's
Honolulu center thought 8.0 was no big
deal. On December 29 he told the Washington
Times, "the magnitude of the earthquake
[initially] was 8.0, which is not a
guaranteed tsunami-producer." His explanation
for the failure to warn? "Our business
is not to guess, so we did not guess
there would be tsunamis."
Is a Richter
8 earthquake no big deal?
According to Dr. Tad Murty,
a Canadian expert, who has tried lobbying
the Indian government to come up with
the money for a warning system, ''Anything
more than an earthquake of 6.5 on the
Richter scale can trigger a tsunami."
The Telegraph in India quotes
scientists who think 7.5 is the danger
mark where tsunamis can be triggered.
According to the US Geological Service,
an earthquake that is 8 or greater "can
cause serious damage in areas several
hundred kilometers across." The scientists
on duty that Saturday afternoon certainly
say they thought it was big. "The first
thing, when you realize the quake is
a magnitude 8, you go, 'Uh!' You feel
that gut hit, that this guy is big,"
said Barry Hirshorn in the Honolulu
Advertiser on December 31.
So maybe LaDouce changed his
mind when the quake registered an 8.5?
Here's Bulletin 2 issued at 0204 GMT
on the 26th. That's an hour after the
quake first registered.
REVISED MAGNITUDE BASED ON
ANALYSIS OF MANTLE WAVES.
THIS EARTHQUAKE IS LOCATED OUTSIDE THE
PACIFIC. NO DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI THREAT
EXISTS FOR THE PACIFIC BASIN BASED ON
HISTORICAL EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI DATA.
THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF A TSUNAMI
NEAR THE EPICENTER. THIS WILL BE THE
ONLY BULLETIN ISSUED FOR THIS EVENT
UNLESS ADDITIONAL INFORMATION BECOMES
Why are the bulletins so vague?
A tsunami "near the epicenter,"
but there's still NO specific reference
to Indonesia or Thailand. When the first
bulletin goes out, the quake has hit
several Indonesian cities around 8 am
and has been reported widely. When the
2nd bulletin goes out, it's 9 am in
Indonesia and the waves are racing to
Thailand, but there's still no reference
to Indonesia or Thailand. Half an hour
later, the Thai coast is hit. Notice
also how vague the bulletin is -- "the
possibility of a tsunami" is all it
mentions. There's no hint of the "gut
hit" that Hirshorn talks about. Were
the bulletins really sent out by the
scientists or just automatically triggered
without staff input? Remember, it was
Christmas Day at Ewa.
tsunami that unexpected?
The bulletins may be vague
about the threat in the region, but
Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist with the
U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena,
California is pretty explicit, "We knew
the whole coast of Sumatra was capable
of large damaging earthquakes and large
tsunamis, " he says. Dr Elizabeth
Keating, current president of the Tsunami
Society, also thinks the tsunamis were
predictable especially since "almost
on a weekly basis for the last two months,
there had been seismic activity in the
Indonesian area." USGS geophysicist
Bruce Presgrave told the BBC
that the after effects of a quake in
shallow water could be expected to travel
"basically throughout the ocean." As
recently as June 2004, a meeting of
the UN's Inter-Governmental Oceanographers'
Commission concluded, ''The Indian Ocean
has a significant threat from both local
and distant tsunamis.''
Bluntly, the scientific consensus
seems to be that it's quite likely that
there'll be a tsunami when there's even
a Richter 8 let alone a Richter 9 quake
underway after months of continuous
seismic activity in the notoriously
volcanic Ring of Fire region.
So why does the chief administrator
of NOAA's National Weather Service for
the Pacific region think differently?
Why is the media focusing
predominantly on the lack of a warning
system in India and Sri Lanka?
What about the fact that India
and Sri Lanka weren't part of the warning
system and that Thailand lacked the
sea-surface buoys on the west coast?
Waverly Person, director of
the U.S. Geological Survey national
earthquake information service in Golden,
Colorado insinuates that sensors were
the crucial problem because without
them it's impossible to estimate the
timing and the direction of the tsunami.
Yet the article that quotes him then
blithely contradicts itself by stating
that tsunami waves "typically radiate
out in directions opposite from the
seismic disturbance." If it's TYPICAL,
then there should have been an urgent
tsunami alert automatically in the first
bulletin instead of the bland and uninformative
text that went out.
But it's not NOAA's curious
off-duty demeanor but the lack of communication
in the coastal areas that's the theme
of the bulk of the reporting in the
major media. It's the coastal people
who failed because they lacked "organized
communication system as well as discipline
and widely understood procedures," says
AP primly on Dec 26, which may
be true, except it's beside the point.
All that would have been required for
evacuation really would have been a
public alert to people to put 15 minutes
between them and the coast -- something
surely even the most impoverished region
can manage. There would have been a
stampede in crowded areas, but its unlikely
that that would have produced anything
like the devastation not knowing about
the tsunami produced.
No one denies that the warning
system would have helped. But though
it's been given a lot of play in the
media, experts say it's not the all-important
factor it's being made out to be because
it's just one source of information.
Paul Whitmore, scientist in
charge at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami
Warning Center says, "Earthquake information
travels a lot faster than the tsunami
wave travels. The first alert may well
be issued based on seismic data even
BEFORE (my emphasis) a tsunameter registers
the wave." In the early stages of an
alert, "we have to make decisions so
fast, all we look at is earthquake magnitude
and location." In other words, even
if there had been a system in place,
any alert would have gone out based
only on the quake because there wouldn't
have been time to wait for the sensor
readings. The alert would have had to
be based on the magnitude that was known
from the start to be above 8.
The next point that Whitmore
makes is that NOAA draws upon readings
from about a dozen government agencies
and universities and the coordinated
readings from all these agencies should
have told NOAA what it needed to know.
NOAA also has computer simulation
at its fingertips. Its warning system
analyzes quake information from several
networks to create computer models of
the origin, speed, and expected arrival
times in different areas. The quake
information was all that was needed
for that, not the ocean sensors.
In fact, just last year, Charles
McCreery, the head geophysicist of the
three-man team at Ewa Beach went on
record saying that the initial warning
for a tsunami is based on seismic data
and not the wave action (Hawaii Star
Bulletin, March 31, 2003.)
That's the same McCreery who
now tells the NY Times (Dec 28,
2004) that not until the deadly wave
hit Sri Lanka and the scientists in
Honolulu saw news reports of the damage
there did they recognize what was happening.
"Then we knew there was something moving
across the Indian Ocean," said McCreery.
The tsunami reportedly hit
Indonesia at 8am, Thailand at 9am. Global
Positioning System (GPS) satellite imagery
would have available to a number of
American agencies including the military
and intelligence from those first hits
and after that, there were news reports
and photos. The Australians south of
India knew almost immediately. The US
Naval Base at Diego Garcia west of India
also knew immediately. So how did the
top geophysicist at the warning center
not know soon enough to tip off either
India or Sri Lanka?
it possible to reach any of these countries?
McCreery, at Ewa, claims to
have had no contacts at all in South
Asia. Jeff LaDouce, the chief at Honolulu
HQ, only mentions emails -- not even
calls -- to Indonesia which he is not
sure reached them, and the international
center spokeswoman, also at HQ, claims
that they had no contacts in place they
could call and were starting from scratch.
The team under McCreery at
Ewa paints a more frenzied picture.
"We started thinking about who we could
call. We talked to the State Department
Operations Center and to the military.
We called embassies. We talked to the
navy in Sri Lanka, any local government
official we could get hold of," Bruce
Hirshorn said. "We spoke to people
in the foreign ministries, and everywhere
we could think of. We were collecting
phone numbers, e-mail addresses -- whatever
contact information we could. There
was a conference call with officials
in Madagascar," says Stuart Weinstein,
the third of the trio at Ewa.
Do the bland bulletins that
went out sound like this description
of frenzied effort? Also, why was the
international group -- the ITSU -- unable
to find a list of contacts when the
Tsunami website lists contacts for all
countries in the international warning
system including Shih Lai Woon for Singapore,
Mastur Masturyono for Indonesia, both
with email, fax and telephone contacts.
True, for Thailand's Sukit Yensung,
there is no phone, fax or email contact
information but doesn't that also show
the ITSU's negligence? India and Sri
Lanka were of course not part of the
system but contact information was available
for the International Union of Geodesy
and Geophysics (IUGG), the World Meteorological
Organization (WMO), the World Data Centers
A and B, the International Council of
Scientific Unions (ISCU), the United
Nations Disaster Relief Organization
(UNDRO), and the United Nations Education,
Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), all of whom had extensive
relations with the international tsunami
center. How could NONE of these bodies
know how to get through to the Asian
countries that were hit?
McCreery's team remembers
his calls to American and Australian
officials and also to the Maldives,
Madagascar, and Sri Lanka, but about
the other international conversations
supposedly made to India, Thailand,
and Indonesia, there's only the telltale
admission that these were conversations
"that the individuals don't fully recall."
Why not? If you are frantically
contacting people, don't you remember
whom you contacted as you go from person
to person? So far, Indian officials
have denied that they received any warning
from the center.
Notice that besides the Australian
and American contacts (neither of whom
were clearly in any danger of the tsunami
themselves) and the American embassies
in the Madagascar and Maldives, only
Sri Lanka is mentioned. After
reports of deaths in Sri Lanka, a Lankan
Navy commander called the center to
ask about the chance of more tsunamis.
The U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka also
called, wanting to be notified of big
aftershocks. That doesn't sound too
Anyway, even if they couldn't
reach people, why did they use email
bulletins which were unlikely to be
opened immediately? Why didn't NOAA
simply contact the media? A CNN bulletin
or an AP news flash would have reached
almost at once and gone to local radio
stations fast enough to have saved lives
in India and Sri Lanka for certain and
probably also in Thailand. It boggles
the mind that in an age of instant global
communication, the combined efforts
of the military, top university seismic
systems, and the national weather service
weren't able to get through to anyone
in four large Asian countries and also
can't remember whom they spoke to.
"We cannot watch tsunamis
in the Indian Ocean," said Conrad C.
Lautenbacher, the Commerce Department's
undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere
and a retired Navy vice admiral, but
of course they do because Diego Garcia
the magnitude of the earthquake underestimated?
Lives would also have been
saved if from the start NOAA had got
the earthquake reading right at 9am.
Instead, for at least a day, the reading
was at 8.1 and 8.5 and located at 250
km (155 miles) SSE of Banda Aceh, Sumatra.
Jakarta's Meteorology and Geophysics
Office seems to have recorded the quake
first at 6.4 then 6.6 and finally 6.8
on the Richter scale and stated that
it was centered some 149 kilometres
(93 miles) south of Meulaboh. A monitor
at Strasbourg station in France put
it at 8. If seismic forecasting
is such an inexact science, shouldn't
the public be made aware so it doesn't
repose so much trust in experts who
end up reacting to events and giving
us the benefit of only hindsight? We
are not talking about a minor discrepancy
here but a logarithmic leap in magnitude.
To make things clear, a 6.5 quake would
need 5 million tons of TNT to create
the equivalent seismic energy yield
while an 8.0 quake would need 1 billion
tons and a 9.0 would need 32 billion.
That's a colossal difference. To carry
the example further, a 12.0 quake would
be the equivalent of 160 trillion tons
or earth's daily receipt of solar energy
and the fault that produced it would
split the earth in half.
Question -- how big would
a disaster outside the Pacific have
to be for NOAA to pay attention?
the original time and location changed?
There's also a question about
the time. An early USA Today
report (dated 12/25, 11:13 pm) gave
the time of the earthquake as 6:58 am
local time in Indonesia reflecting the
data on the US Geological Services site
at the time. That appears on Bloomberg.com,
Maps of the World, a California
government site and others, but elsewhere,
it's 7:58 am. When did this change take
place and how was it possible to get
the quake time wrong by an hour? A blogger
who viewed the original USGS site also
noted that the location changed from
3.251°N, 95.799°E to 3.316°N, 95.854°E,
and the depth from 10 km (6.2 miles)
to 30 km (18.6 miles) and the parameters
of the quake were changed from Nst=169,
Nph=169, Dmin=>999 km, Rmss=1.4 sec,
Gp= 29° to Nst=276, Nph=276, Dmin=654.9
km, Rmss=1.04 sec, Gp=29°.
It is impossible for laymen
to figure out what the significance
or not of all this is but it certainly
is food for thought.
NOAA's shoddy response is
by no means unique. It seems that Thai
officials played down the tsunami threat
so as not to interfere with the tourism
business; we know that Lankan officials
seemed to have also not responded in
a timely way; and we know that an urgent
message from the Indian air force base
in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in
the Indian Ocean was not directed right
away to the federal Ministry of Home
Affairs responsible for dealing with
natural disasters because of red-tape.
India's science and technology minister
has requested an investigation into
the delay that certainly cost lives.
Also, despite some scientific concern
about the potential threat expressed
earlier this year, India did not put
in a warning system. Certainly, the
state of the art system is very expensive
with each tsunameter costing a quarter
of a million, but there were also less
expensive things that could have been
done, like joining the international
warning system for $5,000 a year. So
there's enough blame to go around. Still,
these countries do have an excuse. Tsunamis
don't show up often enough in the Indian
Ocean for them to have been a priority
and records dating back to 1509 show
that Indian Ocean tsunamis have also
never hit more than one place at one
time. The last multi-ocean tsunami anywhere
was in 1883 at Krakatau.
The fact also remains that
joining the warning system didn't help
either Thailand or Indonesia.
And that finally is the bottom
line. "The fact that the potential danger
rose to the level of prompting a swift
warning to two nations, while others
could be faced with a potentially devastating
impact, raises serious questions," the
Senate Oceans Subcommittee chair, Senator
Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), said in a letter
to Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere
Conrad Lautenbacher. Maybe hearings
before the Senate will get the serious
answers this calamity deserves.