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Five years ago, tsunami claimed some 240,000 lives

December 26, 2009 - INDIAN OCEAN

A tsunami claimed 230,000 lives in 14 Indian Ocean countries five years ago. Memorials and a minute of silence for the victims will be held throughout the region on the anniversary. Warning systems have been under development there since the disaster, but a lethal South Pacific tsunami on 29 Sep 2009 showed that alert systems are not fail safe. The anniversary focuses attention on their limitations and on whether Indonesia will be ready to take over its own system in 2010.

The 9.1 magnitude quake off the western coast of northern Sumatra in Dec 2004, the most powerful to hit Indonesia, created 90-foot waves that rolled through the Indian Ocean. The Maldives and Sri Lanka were among the many countries hit by the disaster. In the five years since, Indonesia has been hit by 29 quakes of 6.3 magnitude or higher. The world's largest archipelago, Indonesia is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic activity because tectonic plates meet there. Somoa, American Samoa and Tonga are also within the ring. The September 8.3 magnitude quake sent 15 to 20-foot waves far inland in the islands, killing at least 162 people. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves came so quickly that residents had only minutes to respond. Erring on the side of caution by ringing the alarm before the danger is confirmed is not an option, according to experts, as false alarms quickly deaden reactions to warnings. Some experts have also raised the issue of whether the technology now available is sophisticated enough to do the job. And even with the best technology in place, sound disaster management, education and communications are needed to round out an effective system. A system for Indonesia and the region of sensors and satellite communications is expected to be ready by 2010. Initially operated jointly with Germany, it will be operated by Indonesia alone from 2010. Danny Hilman, a tsunami expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, describes the system as rudimentary.

Being ready for the big wave (WSJ 4 Oct 2009)

Samoa Tsunami Lesson: Early Warning System Too Slow (ABC 3 Oct 2009)

Date written/update: 2009-12-26