Pangandaran highlights importance of last mile

Posted on July 23, 2006  /  3 Comments

New Straits Times – Malaysia News Online
Unlike other natural calamities, the worst effects of the tsunami are now mostly avoidable. So following the catastrophe, countries around the ocean’s rim, helped by the United Nations and other partners, went about putting an early warning system into place.

None of the fancy equipment and good intentions made a difference last Monday when a 7.7-magnitude undersea quake south of Java triggered a tsunami that smashed into 200 kilometres of coastline around Pangandaran.

What ensued was a scaled-down reprise of December 2004: communities caught by surprise, the death toll mounting as bodies are uncovered and, most regretfully, alarm bells lost in transmission. To be fair, unlike its much bigger but slower rolling predecessor, the Java temblor gave the Indonesian Bureau of Meteorology and Geophysics only 20 minutes to sound an alert.

Even with the best communications, that would not have been long enough to evacuate the shore. Given the fact that most of the fishing villagers did not have TVs or telephones, any rescue plan would have been dead on the water well before it could get off the ground.

Java illustrates the importance of the \”last mile\” in the early warning network. In Thailand, the crucial distance between centralised detection and the often isolated coast is being closed by education and drills.


  1. A good piece of analysis, except do not agree with his contention that Sri Lanka is using temple and churche bells for the last mile of the warning system. It may be the case in a few towns and villages but I doubt if this is the general state of things.

    The Wall Street Journal
    Tuesday, July 25, 2006

    ‘What Went Wrong?’

    Unlike the catastrophic “Boxing Day tsunami” of December 26, 2004, a warning was issued before the West Java tsunami struck Indonesia last week. Still, the latest tsunami’s death toll has surpassed 600 people, and it is still rising. It was triggered by what some seismologists refer to as a “junk” earthquake — of a magnitude that occurs about once every couple of months somewhere around the world.

    What went wrong? Why could this latest disaster not have been prevented? As the death toll from the latest tsunami shows, the message of the 2004 mega-tsunami has largely been lost.

    Of course, there has been no shortage of international attention to the need for greater tsunami preparedness. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has held meetings from Kobe to Hyderabad to Bali. The agency’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is trying to develop a long-term approach to tsunami hazard mitigation by coordinating assessment, warning guidance, and mitigation systems, aimed at at-risk communities. But results, as we saw last week, have been limited.

    The problem with the IOC’s well-organized gatherings is that most attending countries seem to think they have their own solutions in hand. They don’t. Yet this does not stop the delegations from touting local capabilities to build comprehensive disaster-prevention systems, some of which are beyond science fiction. In their formal position papers, one may well replace the word “tsunami” with hurricane, earthquake or flu epidemic, so vague is their rhetoric about their nations’ preparedness. Meanwhile, “expert” opportunists have been marketing copy-cat tsunameter technologies to these countries, similar to what is already in place in the Northern Pacific, but at multiplied costs. The national representatives who attend the IOC meetings often understand little of tsunamis or even risk mitigation. And acronyms have proliferated so much that even emergency-prevention professionals have trouble following the organizational
    charts, committee structures, assignments, and worse, monitoring progress. In other words, business as usual.

    The countries that bypass this muddle are those who possessed the most experience in tsunami detection before the mega-tsunami. In the U.S., the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has quietly been expanding its tsunami-forecasting capabilities. This was demonstrated in November 2003, when NOAA cancelled a tsunami warning in Hawaii based on real-time measurements in the deep sea, conducted many hours before the tsunami was to strike. A planned expansion of the same tsunameter network that now protects Hawaii will cover most of the country’s West Coast and the Caribbean. Many at-risk communities in the U.S. have inundation maps for evacuation planning; one was put into effect recently, when a nano-tsunami generated off Northern California triggered evacuations in some communities. Evacuation exercises have taken place in most cities along the coasts of California, Washington and Oregon. Such local initiative is crucial to tsunami-disaster mitigation.

    It is exactly this last step that has been missing in most international and national efforts. The emphasis to date has been on acquiring new technology, which in most cases has meant new seismic stations. As we found out last week, this is just not enough. Technology has its limitations — even NOAA’s. It took the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, based in Hawaii, 15 minutes to issue a warning for the July 17 event.

    Advanced evacuation planning is needed urgently. No matter how advanced detection instruments become, they will not save victims on the shore unless they trigger well-ordered and well-rehearsed evacuations. Although a warning was issued to Indonesian authorities in the minutes before the tsunami struck, little could have been done to avert disaster, since there was no evacuation plan in place.

    For coastal residents — especially those in poor countries — the only tsunami warning will often be a simple sensation of a strong earthquake, possibly accompanied with unusual motions of the shoreline. Self-evacuation then must take place at once; if not, there is likely to be panic and unnecessary deaths.

    If the earthquake strikes at night, sirens have been proven to be very effective. Even Japan and the U.S. rely on them. In Sri Lanka, churches and temples already function as warning dissemination centers. Public announcements about the deployment of more seismometers, welcome as they may be, have regrettably detracted from the basic responsibility of every coastal community in Indonesia and elsewhere to be tsunami-ready.

    What remains to be done in terms of warning guidance? The U.S. should
    continue to provide experience and knowledge to any country that needs it. NOAA
    has developed the only proven technology for end-to-end mitigation, and the joint U.S./UNESCO Pacific Tsunami Warning Center now covers the Indian Ocean. The IOC, on its part, should continue to forcefully advocate a central warning center, coordinating national centers in all the world’s oceans and seas. But it should also emphasize the need for warning dissemination. UNESCO’s International

    Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) should continue training local scientists in tsunami modeling and forecasting, as well as in overall emergency preparedness.

    This last suggestion follows from the only success story since 2004. In the past year, at least 60 scientists from 18 Indian Ocean nations — from East Timor to Bangladesh to Pakistan to Mozambique — have attended ITIC short courses and can now produce draft inundation maps for warning guidance. If implemented, these maps will help plan evacuations and raise the awareness of the local hazards. In areas in the Pacific where such maps exist, tsunamis triggered by “junk” earthquakes have caused a handful — not hundreds — of deaths.

    Most importantly, countries need to grasp the lessons offered by the 2004, 2005 and 2006 disasters and educate local communities about the simple actions they can take to protect themselves from the next killer tsunami. If they don’t, they risk another “Boxing Day” tragedy, or worse.

    Mr. Synolakis is professor of civil engineering at the University of
    Southern California and director of its Tsunami Research Center.

  2. The temple and church bells story is a lie.

    It started circulating sometime last year. Each journalist reads up on what was written before and writes it again. It now has a life of its own.

  3. Azhar Ghani reports to New Straits Times (August 1, 2006, p. 1) from Bali:

    Countries involved in an ongoing international effort oto set up a regional tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean will soon have to follow stricter guidelines.

    The United Nations agency behind the US$ 126 million (S$ 200 million) initiative said yesterday that the 28 countries in the project will be expected to submit detailed national plans.

    These must spell out specific goals and timelines, which will then be incorporated into the regional master plan.

    In particular, they should spell out how communities at risk will be adequately warned and prepared for future tsunamis.

    In fact, this emphasis on the so-called “last mile” of the warning system will be made a priority.

    The shifts in how the regional warning system is to be developed were announced by Dr Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of the UN’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).