Gathering Place
Doug Carlson

Tsunami center should
have used news media

How should we regard the performance of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center after the devastating Sumatra earthquake?

The Star-Bulletin thinks the center performed admirably (Editorial, Jan. 13) and defended it from criticism in Thailand and elsewhere for not sounding a usable tsunami warning to south Asia.

Maybe the center did perform its job well, but that depends on what the definition of "its job" is. Scientists certainly were efficient and immediately analyzed the initial data on the earthquake and dispatched a bulletin within minutes.

And they sent another bulletin about an hour later accurately predicting there would be no Pacific-wide tsunami but suggesting that perhaps one had been triggered in the Indian Ocean.

At that point, suspecting a tsunami was racing across the ocean, they called government agencies in the region, with no success. Scientists have given many interviews to the media about what it was like in those moments when the suspicion of a probable tsunami finally sank in. The Chicago Tribune reported:

"With a killer tsunami bearing down on Sri Lanka and India at airliner speeds, an effort to save thousands of lives came down to a handful of overworked employees in Hawaii trying to telephone government officials they did not know and did not know how to reach."

In the end, the terrible truth about the center's performance on Christmas Day (Hawaii time) is that not one life was saved in south Asia by what the center's scientists knew and what they did.

That hardly describes a great performance -- unless, of course, the center's "job" is narrowly defined as administrative. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Conrad Lautenbacher held a press conference on Jan. 11 and described the staff's actions as excellent. "This is a group that believes in saving lives and protecting property at all costs," he said.

But the center did not save any lives. It did not protect any property. What are we to make of this dissonance between what the center's staff suspected -- that a killer tsunami might have been generated -- and the fact that more than 225,000 people died on Indian Ocean beaches, villages and cities?

Questions arose following the tragedy about why no effective warning was raised using the world's major news media. Confirmation that the center and its sister NOAA agencies apparently have no media communications plan came a few days later in a UPI story that quoted an NOAA spokesperson:

"Not only was the center focused on warning agencies, it does not have an official list of media contacts," she said.

So there it was -- no media contacts, no media phone numbers and therefore no media planning by a U.S. agency that prides itself as being the world leader in tsunami preparedness.

What can NOAA do? I've posted a five-point program on my Web log (tsunamilessons.blogspot.com) as a suggestion for NOAA to shift its thinking and culture to include meaningful media notification after future earthquakes:

» NOAA should accept constructive criticism -- rather than deny -- that actions it could have undertaken likely would have saved lives in south Asia.

» NOAA should resolve to change its communications culture to include re-evaluating the scope of its information-disseminating mission -- i.e., whether its mission extends beyond the Pacific Rim.

» NOAA should rewrite it communications protocols to include early telephone calls to news organizations that have the capability of sending worldwide tsunami warnings.

» NOAA should accomplish high-level coordination with the management of these news agencies to ensure proper execution of the alerts when received by the media.

» NOAA should train its personnel to respond to suspected tsunamis by making direct person-to-person contact with the major news outlets based on proper prior planning.

Businesses routinely search for lessons after being hit by major non-scheduled events. NOAA must do the same.

Doug Carlson is a Honolulu communications consultant and former spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric Company.

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