JAKARTA, Indonesia — Asian officials conceded today that they failed to issue broad public warnings immediately after a massive undersea earthquake in Indonesia, which could have saved countless lives from the subsequent giant waves that smashed into nine countries as far away as Africa.
India said it would consider establishing a warning system, and Australia and Japan said they would help build it. One Australian official said it would take at least a year to set one up.
Also, Thailand’s Meteorological Department said the country lacked an international warning system and proper coordination to get messages of impending disasters sent across the country.
“If we had the international warning system, we could give real-time warning to people,” said Seismological Bureau official Sumalee Prachuab.
Governments around the region insisted they did not know the true nature of the threat because there was no international system in place to track tidal waves in the Indian Ocean — where they are rare — and they cannot afford to buy sophisticated equipment to build one.
And what warnings there were came too little, too late.
“No one ever told us that these things can be predicted and we can be told about them,” said Sumana Gamage, a shopowner in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “Next time I hope our government can do this.”
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the largest in 40 years — shifted huge geological plates beneath the sea northwest of Sumatra island, causing a massive and sudden displacement of millions on tons of water.
Indonesia villages closest to the temblor’s epicenter were swamped within minutes, but elsewhere the waves radiated outwards, gathering speed and ferocity until they made landfall. The waves moved at speeds topping 500 mph.
Waves began pummeling southern Thailand about one hour after the earthquake. After 21/2 hours, the torrents had traveled some 1,000 miles and slammed India and Sri Lanka. Malaysia, the Maldives, Myanmar, and Bangladesh were also hit. Eventually they struck Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, where hundreds were reported killed.
The death toll today topped 22,000, with millions left homeless.
Indonesian officials said they had no way to know that the earthquake had caused the earthquake-driven waves, or tsunamis, or how dangerous they might have been.
“Unfortunately, we have no equipment here that can warn about tsunamis,” said Budi Waluyo, an official with Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. “The instruments are very expensive and we don’t have money to buy them.”
But Thammasarote Smith, a former senior forecaster at Thailand’s Meteorological Department, said governments could have done much more to warn people about the danger.
“The department had up to an hour to announce the emergency message and evacuate people but they failed to do so,” Thammasarote was quoted as saying in The Bangkok Post newspaper. “It is true that an earthquake is unpredictable but a tsunami, which occurs after an earthquake, is predictable.”
Kathawudhi Marlairojanasiri, the department’s chief weather forecaster, said it issued warnings through radio and television beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday about a possible undertow along the southwest coast of Thailand, where tens of thousands of foreign tourists were vacationing.
But the warnings came after the first waves hit. A Web site warning went up three hours later — but by then, at least 700 people had died in Thailand, including a jet-skiing grandson of revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra refused to answer reporters’ questions Tuesday about tsunami alerts.
But Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he would investigate what role his country could play in setting up an Indian Ocean warning system.
Scientists said seismic networks in the region recorded Sunday’s earthquake, but without ocean sensors tracking the path of the waves, there was just no way to determine the direction a tsunami would travel.
“If they had tidal gauges and a tsunami warning system, many people who died would have been saved,” said Waverly Person, director of the U.S. Geological Survey national earthquake information service in Golden, Colo.
“They could have tracked the waves. They won’t tell you how high the waves will be, but they can tell you when they will hit. Local authorities can warn citizens to get off the coast.”
Such a system presumes, however, an organized communication system and widely understood procedures and discipline by hotel operators, fishing villages and local authorities to clear the coastline quickly in case of a coming disaster.
Most of developing Asia lacks such infrastructure, and casualties were by far highest in three highly impoverished areas — the coasts of eastern Sri Lanka and southeastern India, and the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
An international warning system in the Pacific was started in 1965, the year after tsunamis associated with a magnitude 9.2 quake struck Alaska. It is administered by the U.S-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Member states include all the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America, as well as the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.
Tsunamis occur only occasionally, but they are much rarer in the Indian Ocean than the Pacific, where one occurs every few years.
In Japan, a network of fiber-optic sensors records any seismic activity and passes that information to a powerful computer at the Meteorological Agency, which estimates the height, speed, destination and arrival time of any tsunamis. Within two minutes of the quake, the agency can sound the alarm.
Phil McFadden, chief scientist with the government-funded Geoscience Australia, said places close to the epicenter of the earthquake would have been hit so quickly that any warning would have come too late.
But if there had been a Pacific-style alert system covering the Indian Ocean, “there would have been time for people in Sri Lanka, across in the Maldives or somewhere like that to have done something about it,” he said.