The December 2004 tsunami shocked the world, literally taking it by storm. It killed nearly 300,000 people in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and its devastating effects were felt as afar away as Africa, where several people died as a result. The tsunami was preceded and directly caused by a magnitude 9.15 earthquake that occurred off the coast of Sumatra. Although there was a significant lag between the time that the earthquake hit and the time the tsunami ravaged the land, residents of affected nations were inadequately warned and insufficiently prepared to face the impending tsunami. As a result of inadequate warning systems in the Indian Ocean, the death toll from the disaster was outrageously high; final tallies are still being updated. A tsunami warning system is not infallible, as tsunamis are difficult to detect from the deep ocean. However, the Pacific Tsunami Warning System (PTW) can offer many practical guidelines for the future creation of an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System that can and should come into effect immediately. Had a better warning system been in place in the Asia-Pacific region, the death tolls and injuries would have been significantly lower than they are, as people would have had time to evacuate the region for safe ground, gathering their loved ones and personal belongings. A warning system would also have enabled local authorities to organize emergency assistance and to meet the food, shelter, and clothing needs of the people.
The main tsunami warning system focuses its attention on the Pacific Ocean. Because the December 2004 earthquake was localized in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) was not actively investigating it. There was no tsunami warning system in place in the Indian Ocean in December 2004, and because of this many more lives were lost than was necessary. Located in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, the PTWC has been in place since 1965, and its twenty-six member states include nations that were hard hit by the 2004 disaster: Indonesia and Thailand. The PTWC actively and constantly monitors seismic activities in the Pacific region. When earthquakes above a certain Richter scale magnitude are recorded by the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), the PTWC determines whether or not tsunami generation is possible based on the location and magnitude of the quake. The PTWC also checks water level data and if necessary issues tsunami warnings or watches. "The warning includes predicted tsunami arrival times at selected coastal communities within the geographic area defined by the maximum distance the tsunami could travel in a few hours," ("The Tsunami Warning System"). Because an efficient warning procedure such as this entails warning at-risk areas, tsunami warning systems are essential in preventing inordinately high death tolls. The Sumatra earthquake was not accompanied by any tsunami warning system and therefore, at-risk communities had no forewarning.
The earthquake itself can serve as a warning to residents of nearby coastal communities. However, the earthquake alone is not sufficient to mobilize mass numbers of people in a region at risk for tsunamis. Tsunamis can also hit areas so far from the epicenter of the earthquake that residents would be unaware of the impending doom without the aid of official warnings. Often, immediately before a tsunami hits ground the water recedes from shore and unaware of the phenomenon, people often mistakenly flee with joy to run in the low-tide sand; this occurred in parts of Asia hit by the 2004 tsunami and caused many unnecessary deaths ("2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake").
Moreover, without an official tsunami warning system people might mistakenly view the earthquake, not the tsunami, as the primary concern. Focusing on the earthquake alone is a grave mistake. According to Atwater et al., "In coastal areas, the largest subduction zone earthquake may kill fewer people than the tsunami that follows." The Atwater report, which details survival strategies based on data from previous tsunami disasters, lists warning systems as a key to averting high death tolls. In 1960, the greatest earthquake on record hit off the coast of Chili and precipitated a tsunami that affected the entire Pacific region, as far away as Japan. "There was plenty of time for evacuation in Hilo, Hawaii," where residents heeded the official warnings and sought high ground. However, many of those who had ignored or misinterpreted the warnings died or were significantly injured. The warning system in place in 1960 was primitive compared to that of the PTWC.
Even the most sophisticated tsunami warning system must be widely publicized, its sirens and other means of alerting the public made readily understandable. For example, schools should teach students what to look for during the warning: what the sirens mean, and what to do in response. The news media shares a similar responsibility in educating the public about the ins and outs of the warning system. Remote villages will need to rely on their local governments to disseminate information about the tsunami warning system, as lack of communications infrastructures mitigate the effectiveness of the warning system itself. People in at-risk communities must also take care to avoid becoming desensitized by false alarms: residents of Hilo "were unsure of how seriously to take the warnings, because several previous alerts had been followed by tsunamis that did little damage." Therefore, an effective tsunami warning system depends on the awareness and education of residents; a warning system cannot exist in a vacuum.
However, in December 2004, residents of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other regions had no warning system whatsoever. Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean region are "relatively rare," ("2004 Indian Ocean earthquake"). Nevertheless, the massive death toll has taught policy makers a grim lesson: relative rarity cannot preclude the installation of an adequate tsunami warning system. Even if a hundred false warnings are issued for every actual tsunami, and even if a tsunami hits once every hundred years, a warning system is essential to minimize death tolls.
In response to the December 2004 disaster, the United Nations organized a conference in Kobe, Japan with the goal of creating an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system and ultimately, an international one. On June 30, 2005, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System was officially born, six months too late for the 300,000 dead. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system "will consist of enhanced seismographic networks, networks of real-time sea-level gauges and deep-sea ocean pressure sensors, along with national tsunami warning centres linked to national disaster management systems," (Williams). The very existence of the fast-tracked tsunami warning system indicates the mistake in not having created such a warning system years earlier. Many analysts were "haunted by the realization that such an operation could have saved tens of thousands of lives lost in last December's disaster in South Asia," ("Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System Launched").
Remarkably, some of the best warning systems in place during the 2004 tsunami were completely informal. A ten-year-old British girl on vacation in Phuket Thailand had recently learned about tsunamis in school. Noticing the receded water, she suspected an impending tsunami and she and her parents helped warn and evacuate the beach they were on. Similarly, residents of the small island Simeulue in Indonesia fled to higher ground after the earthquake because a warning system inherent in local folklore ("2004 Indian Ocean earthquake").
The 2004 tsunami is widely known to be one of the worst natural disasters in recent history and one of the worst tsunamis on record with regard to death toll. With such a warning system in place, the December 2004 tsunami might not have deserved such superlatives. The death tolls might have been significantly less had a warning system been in place in the Indian Ocean. The United Nations has thankfully responded by fast-tracking the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System. The next step will be to create worldwide awareness of tsunamis, as their deadly waves can potentially strike any shore on earth. In order for the tsunami warning system to work, it will also have to be widely publicized, its official procedures ingrained into all affected residents.
Most analysts would sadly agree that "a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean could have saved thousands of lives after the Sumatra earthquake," (Leow). Following the PTWC model, a warning system would build on seismic data and offer persons at risk up to several hours of advance warning. Local governments could use that time to gather emergency assistance materials and organize emergency medical and rescue staff. Residents would have enough time to gather their loved ones and valuable belongings and head for higher, safer ground. Even in the wake of the 2004 disaster, the region remains woefully unprepared. The United Nations initiative has not yet been firmly established or rooted enough in local infrastructure or public consciousness to be as effective as possible. Nevertheless, the 2004 tsunami was so devastating that no one can fail to be motivated to do their part in promoting an early warning system,…