The false alarm that fresh tsunamis were heading toward India's southern coast sparked panic in three countries Thursday. Tens of thousands...
NEW DELHI — The false alarm that fresh tsunamis were heading toward India’s southern coast sparked panic in three countries today. Tens of thousands — rescuers and villagers — ran for their lives, fleeing inland, climbing roofs and jamming roads.
Hours later, the Indian government said the alert was based on bad information from a little-known U.S. operation based in Oregon. The government had been criticized for not giving sufficient warning in the hours a tremendous earthquake struck off Sumatra and a tsunami barreled into the southern coastline.
The confusion and mass panic that ensued today in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand highlights the lack of a coordinated tsunami warning system in the region.
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Experts have said such a system would have helped save lives in the disaster that has claimed more than 114,000 people since Sunday’s 9.0 magnitude quake off Indonesia sent wall-high waves racing across the Indian Ocean, slamming into an arc of nations across Asia and Africa.
Only one of the 11 countries hit by the tsunamis, Thailand, is part of the international warning system in place for Pacific Rim nations. There is no counterpart for the Indian Ocean.
Indian officials said they feared several underwater aftershocks early today had triggered fresh tsunamis.
The alert was issued around noon in southern Tamil Nadu state, sending thousands of already traumatized residents, aid workers and refugees in the coastal town of Nagappattinam streaming out in a panicked train of car and trucks.
“We got into a truck and fled,” said Gandhimathi, a 40-year-old woman who, like many south Indians, goes by one name. “We do not know where to go or where to spend the night.”
Panic gripped nearly everyone, including hospital patients, in the town that lost some 4,000 residents.
“Even people with fractured legs got up and said, ‘We want to go. Put us in a vehicle and send us out of town,”‘ said Dr. Sudhanthiran.
India’s evacuation warning was also heard in the neighboring island-nation of Sri Lanka, where people climbed onto roofs and jammed roads in their rush to escape.
“There is total confusion here,” said Rohan Bandara, a resident in the coastal town of Tangalle. “The aim of all the people is not to see the waves again, so they are leaving.”
The mad dash inland was chaotic as cars reversed and turned off the road, some trying to race past one another on narrow lanes. Clutching their possessions in plastic bags, residents made their way to higher ground, some on foot.
In Thailand’s southern Phang Nga region, rescuers and villagers along a beach in the Takuapa district ran after a siren warning wailed that a new tsunami was expected to hit.
The Indian government later acknowledged it had relied on faulty information from a U.S.-based group that claimed it could forecast quakes. Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal explained that the government had initially seen the warning of an imminent quake on the group’s Web site.
The U.S. office of the Indian Space Research Organization contacted the company, the Oregon-based Terra Research and Consulting Services, passing along the information to New Delhi.
Although there is no proven method to predict short-term quakes, Sibal said, his ministry decided to give the information to the Home Ministry. However, he was not consulted before the Home Ministry issued its warning.
“(They) … claimed they have some sensors and equipment through which they suggest there was a possibility of an earthquake,” Sibal said at a televised press conference. “So, on the basis of this communication, for anyone to reach a conclusion that a tsunami will hit the eastern coast of India is unscientific, hogwash and should be discarded.”
Terra Research and Consulting Services is run by Larry Park, 46, who describes himself as an earthquake forecaster and stood by his prediction. He said today a quake-spawned tsunami still could happen.
“There is a good chance of a quake coming, yes, we’ve got a few days’ window,” he told The Associated Press.
Park said he received a two-year degree from Lower Columbia College in Longview, Wash., and then worked for 25 years as a computer engineer. He now earns a living as a computer consultant while pursuing his earthquake research.
The Indian Home Ministry was unapologetic.
“There was no need to panic. We issued the alert as a precautionary measure,” said A.K. Rastogi, a senior home ministry official.
Still, it was clear that the absence of a coordinated warning system in the South and Southeast Asian region had caused large-scale and, perhaps, unnecessary panic.
The current warning system, which monitors several seismic networks, is designed to alert nations that potentially destructive waves may hit their coastlines within three to 14 hours.
Earlier this week, India announced plans to set up its own early warning system, which it expects will be established within two years.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said Wednesday it believes the current warning system could easily be extended to countries around the Indian Ocean within a year.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appointed a new assistant minister, Smith Thammasaroj, to set up a new national warning system and coordinate with other countries.
Australia, already part of the Pacific Rim warning system, had pledged to push for a similar system to be set up in the Indian Ocean after the Sunday quake.
But even Foreign Minister Alexander Downer admitted that poor communications in impoverished areas of the region likely would limit the system’s effectiveness.
“To be frank with you, to be able to communicate a warning to the sorts of communities we’re talking about here would be extremely difficult,” Downer said. “It’s hard to estimate even with a real warning how many lives would have been saved — perhaps not very many, but some.”