Indonesians pushed their bicycles yesterday through a tsunami-devastated area in Pangandaran, West Java, Indonesia.
Tsunami response upsets warning center
Indonesia erred in not notifying its residents, a local official says
The head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said an Indonesian official "did the wrong thing" by not alerting residents before a deadly tsunami struck.
Charles McCreery, director of the Hawaii-based center, said it is always better to be safe than sorry in issuing alerts, despite the possible backlash from the public when a destructive wave doesn't materialize.
The center issued a tsunami warning to Indonesia via e-mail, fax and a dedicated telecommunication system after a powerful earthquake was detected deep in the Indian Ocean on Monday, but Indonesian officials chose not to relay the warning to residents.
Staff at the center also called Indonesian officials three times about the possible tsunami, but no one answered the phone, McCreery said.
Science and Technology Minister Kusmayanto Kadiman said the nation received bulletins from the Hawaii center and Japan's Meteorological Agency 45 minutes before the tsunami hit but did not announce them because they did not want to cause unnecessary alarm.
"If it (the tsunami) did not occur, what would have happened?" he told reporters in Jakarta, noting that there was no effective way to spread a warning without a system of sirens or alarms in place.
The tsunami crashed into Java island, killing at least 531 people. Some 275 others were missing.
"The minister did the wrong thing. But if no tsunami had occurred, he would've looked like a smart guy," McCreery said.
Whether Indonesian officials could have used radio broadcasts or police, firefighters and others to help clear coastal areas was not immediately clear.
"I'm frustrated and I'm sure the government of Indonesia is frustrated that this thing came along and they didn't have what they needed to have in place," McCreery said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued its first alert at 8:36 a.m. GMT, just minutes after the earthquake, which it reported occurred at 8:19 a.m.
"There is the possibility of a local tsunami threat that could affect coasts located usually no more than a hundred kilometers from the earthquake epicenter. Authorities for the region near the epicenter should be aware of this possibility," the bulletin said.
Initial tsunami warnings are based solely on seismic data.
"You have to issue the initial warning on that information and most of the time you're going to be wrong," McCreery said. "There's going to be no tsunami."
On average, three of four tsunami warnings in Hawaii have turned out to be false alarms.
In May, 14 coastal schools were closed across Hawaii after an underwater earthquake near Tonga triggered brief tsunami warnings and watch advisories across the Pacific. The closures caused confusion, disruptions and Hawaii officials were criticized.
Officials in Thailand have also been criticized because of false alerts they issued.
"We get a lot of flack," McCreery said. "We all understand that it's the price of doing what we do."
The magnitude 7.7 undersea quake on Monday triggered surges of water more than six feet high that crashed into a 110-mile stretch of beach on Java island, an area spared by the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami that killed at least 216,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations.
Though Indonesia started to install a warning system after that disaster, it is still in the early stages.
Since taking his post in 1993, McCreery said Indonesia has been hit by at least a half-dozen tsunamis resulting in death.
"They have been making a lot of progress in their country to develop a system, but Indonesia is a very large country," he said. "They have a lot of complexities, a lot of languages, islands and a lot of tsunami threat."
Hawaii has an emergency warning system using sirens across its islands and bulletins that are immediately aired on radio and TV stations.
"This system we have here, we've been working on for 40 years," McCreery said. "So we have a lot of things in place here that you can't set up instantly."
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said there was no need to issue an alert because most people had fled inland after the earthquake, fearing a tsunami.
"After the quake occurred, people ran to the hills. ... So in actual fact there was a kind of natural early warning system," he said.
However, of dozens of people interviewed by the Associated Press in Pangandaran yesterday, none said there was a mass movement of people to higher ground before the tsunami, though some residents recognized the danger when they saw the wall of water approaching.
Associated Press reporter Irwan Firdaus in Pangandaran, Indonesia, contributed to this report.