From: Joseph Coleman, Associated Press
Published January 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Tsunami Detection a Complex Challenge

KOBE, Japan — The warning system worked perfectly. From sensors far offshore, Japanese meteorologists detected a tsunami headed toward the southern island of Ishigaki in March 2002 and quickly warned residents of the possible danger.


That's when things went wrong. Instead of heading to safety in the hills, islanders went to the beach to watch.


Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the incident recounted Tuesday by a Japanese expert at the opening of a United Nations conference illustrated the complexities of the meeting's most urgent task: laying the groundwork for a warning system that might have saved countless lives in southern Asia's tsunami disaster.


The Dec. 26 catastrophe was expected to dominate the five-day World Conference on Disaster Reduction, with experts and diplomats debating relief aid, the threat of disease and reconstruction in the vast zone of destruction.


The conference opened with a moment of silence for the 170,000 people killed in 11 countries. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a videotaped greeting, urged participants to make countries "more resilient" to natural disasters.


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"The tsunami was an unprecedented, global natural disaster," Annan said. "I think we are already seeing an unprecedented, global response."


In a series of meetings and workshops this week, experts plan to discuss such matters as protection of vital facilities like schools, hospitals and seawalls, construction of earthquake-proof buildings, strengthening of communication networks and steps to limit environmental damage.


At the top of the agenda, however, was setting the stage for a tsunami early-warning network for the Indian Ocean similar to the one that now protects the Pacific. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has proposed a system that would cost $30 million and go into operation by mid-2006.


"What we need to have here is a strong commitment by countries and agencies," said Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, adding that he hoped such systems could be extended to all disaster-prone regions in the next 10 years.


Egeland and others, however, acknowledged a warning system alone is not enough. Also needed are quake-proof seawalls of sufficient height, detailed hazard maps showing danger areas, well-defined evacuation routes and shelters, a way to alert endangered people and education of coastal people about the dangers.


Fumihiko Imamura, a tsunami expert from Tohoku University, showed a videotape of Ishigaki islanders who gathered along the coast to witness the tsunami three years ago when they should have evacuated. While no one was injured, he said the case showed the limitations of warning systems.


"No matter the amount of information, the residents have to understand the importance of evacuation," he told a symposium on tsunami.


Another top concern is the communication of warnings from government agencies to people on the ground. Many of the areas hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami suffer from deep poverty and lack basic education and communication networks.


Residents should be educated about warning signs of impending tsunami -- such as offshore earthquakes and suddenly receding seas -- so they will know to evacuate on their own, said Laura Kong, director of UNESCO's International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu.


"Many governments are talking about early warning systems. What is most important is to have an aware population, so that every citizen along a coastline knows what a tsunami is, knows the warning signs," she said.


The case of Japan is instructive of the challenges faced. Despite the earthquake-prone country's long experience with tsunami and its highly advanced early warning system, Japan still lacks many of the essential elements of an effective defense.


Only 10 percent of local governments in Japan have hazard maps. Nearly a third of seawalls along vulnerable coasts have not been tested for proper height and two-thirds of the breakwaters have not been checked for resilience against quakes.


It is unclear what shape the proposed Indian Ocean tsunami-warning system will take. An Asian regional summit next month also is expected to take up the topic.


In the meantime, Japan and the United States, the countries with the most advanced sensor systems in place, could provide tsunami warnings to countries around the Indian Ocean until their own system is in place, a Japanese official said last week.


Source: Associated Press


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