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 century.
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
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 to them?
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.
BASED ON ANALYSIS OF MANTLE WAVES.
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.
Was the 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?
Why wasn’t 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 frantic.
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 knew.
Why was 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?
Why was 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.
Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Maryland. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University. Her new book, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media will be published in March-April 2005 by Monthly Review Press. Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva
* Lila Rajiva will talk about her new book, as well as the war in Iraq, the political aspects of the Asian tsunami and other questions on Monday, January 17, from 5:30-6pm Pacific Time on CFUV Radio (Gorilla Radio) in Victoria, British Columbia, at 102FM, 104.3 cable and on the internet at: http://cfuv.uvic.ca.
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