Hawaii did not know whom to contact in Sri Lanka
By Tim Reid
WASHINGTON - The desperate attempts of three US earthquake monitors to warn Indian Ocean nations of the approaching tsunami emerged Wednesday night .

The geophysicists, members of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Honolulu, part of the US Government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were on duty on Christmas Day (Hawaii time) when the massive subterranean earthquake struck off Sumatra. They knew for hours of the impending catastrophe.

A mere 18 minutes after the earthquake, the officials issued a Pacific-wide e-mailed tsunami warning, but realised that most potential victims were not among the centre's Pacific nation clients, because the biggest impact would be in the Indian Ocean.

The officials in Honolulu knew disaster was approaching, but also knew that the Indian Ocean, where tsunamis are extremely rare, has no oceanwide tsunami detection system, and no warning system.

Speaking to the Honolulu Advertiser, the officials said they suddenly realised with dismay that they had no way to alert the potential victims - the tourists on remote resort island beaches, people in coastal towns, those in fishing villages - because they did not know which officials in the target countries to contact. Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Honolulu centre, said: "We tried to do what we could. We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."

His colleague, Barry Hirshorn, said: "We talked to the State Department Operations Centre and to the military. We called embassies. We talked to the Navy in Sri Lanka, any local government official we could get hold of."

The desperate effort was to warn people thousands of miles away to get off beaches. The frustration was knowing that even if government leaders could be reached, most countries had no effective civil defence mechanism for getting the information to the people.

"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," another official, Stuart Weinstein, said.

The message, if it had reached people on the coasts, was simple: start walking away from the sea. "You just have to be a 15-minute walk away from most coasts to be safe," Mr Hirshorn said.

The geophysicists worked through the night sounding the warning as the tsunami continued to sweep across the vast ocean basin. But, despite 21st-century communications, their efforts were in vain. (London Times)

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