Indonesia’s latest tsunami raises global questions over disaster preparedness

Debris are seen after the tsunami damage at Sunda strait at Kunjir village in South Lampung, Indonesia, December 28, 2018. Antara Foto/Ardiansyah via REUTERS

By Fergus Jensen and Fanny Potkin

CIGONDONG/JAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters) – As Indonesia reels from the carnage of yet another natural disaster, authorities around the globe are working on how they can prepare for the kind of freak tsunami that battered coasts west of Jakarta this month.

The Dec. 23 tsunami killed around 430 people along the coastlines of the Sunda Strait, capping a year of earthquakes and tsunamis in the vast archipelago, which straddles the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

No sirens were heard in those towns and beaches to alert people before the deadly series of waves hit shore.

Seismologists and authorities say a perfect storm of factors caused the tsunami and made early detection near impossible given the equipment in place.

But the disaster should be a wake-up call to step up research on tsunami triggers and preparedness, said several of the experts, some of whom have traveled to the Southeast Asian nation to investigate what happened.

“Indonesia has demonstrated to the rest of the world the huge variety of sources that have the potential to cause tsunamis. More research is needed to understand those less-expected events,” said Stephen Hicks, a seismologist at the University of Southampton.

Most tsunamis on record have been triggered by earthquakes. But this time it was an eruption of Anak Krakatau volcano that caused its crater to partially collapse into the sea at high tide, sending waves up to 5 meters (16 feet) high smashing into densely populated coastal areas on Java and Sumatra islands.

During the eruption, an estimated 180 million cubic meters, or around two-thirds of the less-than-100-year-old volcanic island, collapsed into the sea.

But the eruption didn’t rattle seismic monitors significantly, and the absence of seismic signals normally associated with tsunamis led Indonesia’s geophysics agency (BMKG) initially to tweet there was no tsunami.

Muhamad Sadly, head of geophysics at BMKG, later told Reuters its tidal monitors were not set up to trigger tsunami warnings from non-seismic events.

The head of Japan’s International Research Institute of Disaster, Fumihiko Imamura, told Reuters he did not believe Japan’s current warning system would have detected a tsunami like the one in the Sunda Strait.

“We still have some risks of this in Japan…because there’s 111 active volcanoes and low capacity to monitor eruptions generating a tsunami,” he said in Jakarta.

Scientists have long flagged the collapse of Anak Krakatau, around 155 km (100 miles) west of the capital, as a concern. A 2012 study published by the Geological Society of London deemed it a “tsunami hazard.”

Anak Krakatau has emerged from the Krakatoa volcano, which in 1883 erupted in one of the biggest explosions in recorded history, killing more than 36,000 people in a series of tsunamis and lowering the global surface temperature by one degree Celsius with its ash.

BROKEN WARNING SYSTEM

Some experts believe there was enough time for at least a partial detection of last week’s tsunami in the 24 minutes it took waves to hit land after the landslide on Anak Krakatau.

But a country-wide tsunami warning system of buoys connected to seabed sensors has been out of order since 2012 due to vandalism, neglect and a lack of public funds, authorities say.

“The lack of an early warning system is why Saturday’s tsunami was not detected,” said disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Nugroho, adding that of 1,000 tsunami sirens needed across Indonesia, only 56 are in place.

“Signs that a tsunami was coming weren’t detected and so people did not have time to evacuate.”

President Joko Widodo this week ordered BMKG to purchase new early warning systems, and the agency later said it planned to install three tsunami buoys on the islands surrounding Anak Krakatau.

The cost of covering the country is estimated at 7 trillion rupiah ($481.10 million). That is roughly equivalent to Indonesia’s total disaster response budget of 7.19 trillion rupiah for 2018, according to Nugroho.

But other experts say even if this network had been working, averting disaster would have been difficult.

“The tsunami was very much a worst-case scenario for any hope of a clear tsunami warning: a lack of an obvious earthquake to trigger a warning, shallow water, rough seabed, and the close proximity to nearby coastlines,” said seismologist Hicks.

In the Philippines, Renato Solidum, undersecretary for disaster risk reduction, said eruptions from the country’s Taal volcano had caused tsunami waves before in the surrounding Taal Lake.

He told Reuters that what happened in Indonesia showed the need to “re-emphasize awareness and preparedness” regarding volcanic activity and its potential to trigger tsunamis in the Philippines.

The United States has also suffered several tsunamis caused by volcanic activity, including in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington, according to the national weather service.

MORE EDUCATION

In Indonesia earlier this year, a double quake-and-tsunami disaster killed over 2,000 people on Sulawesi island, while at least 500 died when an earthquake flattened much of the northern coastline of the holiday island of Lombok.

In a country where, according to government data, 62.4 percent of the population is at risk of being struck by earthquakes and 1.6 percent by tsunamis, attention is now focused on a continued lack of preparedness.

“Given the potential for disasters in the country, it’s time to have disaster education be part of the national curriculum,” Widodo told reporters after the latest tsunami.

For Ramdi Tualfredi, a high school teacher who survived last week’s waves, these improvements cannot come soon enough.

He told Reuters that people in his village of Cigondong on the west coast of Java and close to Krakatau had never received any safety drills or evacuation training.

“I’ve never received education on safety steps,” he said.

“The system…totally failed.”

(Additional reporting by Wilda Asmarini, Tabita Diela, Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta, Linda Sieg and Tanaka Kiyoshi in Tokyo, and Neil Jerome Morales in Manila.; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

After disaster alert failures, U.S. moves toward national system

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. flag flies over a debris field of former houses following Hurricane Irma in Islamorada, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – In California last month, two young children and their great-grandmother died in a wildfire that family members say they never saw coming or heard an alert.

In January, thousands of people were panic-stricken in Hawaii by a false alarm that a ballistic missile was about to strike the islands.

These and other critical failures have prompted a review of disaster alerts in the United States, which largely operate at a local level, underlining the potential need for a nationwide system, as scientists warn changing weather may bring more hurricanes and wildfires.

“For all practical purposes we don’t really have a national warning system,” Dennis Mileti, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Reuters.

Mileti, a nationally recognized expert on disaster preparedness, is on a panel the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) convened this summer to improve the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS, the platform established a decade ago for all U.S. emergency alerts.

Previewing its findings to Reuters, Mileti said the panel will propose to Congress to revamp national warning systems, and in cases such as ballistic missile alerts, take them out of the hands of local officials.

A half-century ago, before 24-hour cable news networks or the internet, the three main television broadcast stations which could be counted on to issue standard emergency messages to the entire U.S. population

Now, people in the path of natural disasters typically get alerts from a patchwork of state and local agencies, using different platforms and messaging systems, often manned by part-time employees, Mileti said.

For example, in the state of California, warnings are issued by counties that sometimes outsource the job to someone else.

“You don’t get too many good warnings in local communities where” untrained amateurs are in charge, Mileti said.

Human error is another key issue.

Last year, some residents of California’s Sonoma County¬†failed to get timely notice of an approaching wildfire that killed 17 people after authorities, concerned about traffic becoming snarled along evacuation routes, decided not to notify everyone at once.

A community of 10,000 people not in imminent danger from the Carr Fire in Northern California, meanwhile, was evacuated by accident when “somebody hit the wrong button,” Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told the Sacramento Bee.

And in January, many Hawaiians and tourists fled their homes and hotels when an emergency bulletin – sent by mistake – blared out: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

A U.S. government report later blamed the false alarm on human error and inadequate safeguards.

‘RISING THREATS’

California Gov. Jerry Brown, after touring the fiery calamity near Redding on Saturday, called on the state legislature to enact “the best alert system we can get … given the rising threats on the changing of the weather, the climate.”

Many scientists say global warming is not only causing more extreme weather but more expensive disasters and the need for more sophisticated alerting systems.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria combined with wildfires in the West and other calamities to make 2017 the most expensive year on record for disasters in the United States, costing $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

False alarms and human error can pose a problematic cost-benefit equation, said Adam Rose, a Professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and predictive analysis expert.

“Is it better to be safe and have some evacuations that turn out be unnecessary, which can incur some economic costs and even create a slim danger of death or injury? Or is it better to not be safe enough?”

Mileti said his panel will recommend standardizing warning messages, so people in harm’s way can immediately identify the sender, the danger and what action they should take. Improved training of alert system operators can cut down on human error, he said.

Rather than be told simply to “evacuate,” for example, residents of a community facing flash floods, a tsunami, tornado or flames from a wildfire would be told to leave immediately and to go where they can find safe ground.

Mileti pointed to a National Institute of Standards and Technology investigation into a tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, killing over 150 people. It found residents were given only a five-minute warning the twister was about to strike.

“Many of the bodies first responders found were found holding cellphones, trying to get additional information,” Mileti said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and G Crosse)