Initial Plan Proposed for Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

This is the second article in a two-part series about the U.S. contribution to the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system.

Washington - Despite a tragic loss of 650 lives during the July 17 tsunami on the island of Java in Indonesia, progress is being made in the effort to develop an end-to-end regional warning system for tsunamis and other hazards in the Indian Ocean.

At the third session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System, held in Bali, Indonesia, July 31-August 2, the group's secretariat presented an initial implementation plan for the system for members' review that specifies detailed design requirements, accomplishments and gaps.

During the meeting, five working groups - representing efforts in seismic monitoring, sea-level monitoring, hazard-risk assessment, modeling and warning centers - reported on progress made to date.

A sixth working group - formed to focus on mitigation, preparedness and response - "is going to be very important," said Curt Barrett, director of the Indian Ocean Project at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Such a working group, he added, "shows the importance of working with communities and local emergency operations center personnel in developing preparedness and response planning for tsunamis and other hazards."

According to the World Resources Institute, 228 million of Indonesia's 238 million citizens live in coastal areas. In a high-vulnerability seismic area such as the Indian Ocean, not all tsunami warnings will be issued quickly enough to reach sunbathers and others on the region's vast number of beaches.

"You have to raise awareness levels in these communities - about where the high ground is, where the inundation areas are, how to recognize a potential tsunami," Barrett said. "In high-risk areas, people have to be their own warning systems, because they are so close to earthquake zones."

Also during the meeting, five countries - Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand - confirmed they will act as tsunami-watch providers for the Indian Ocean region.

When they are operational, the regional centers will relay tsunami watch information to each country's national center, which then will be responsible for issuing public warnings and making evacuation decisions.

Working Group 5 (warning centers) reported it will be three years to five years before a functional regional watch provider is operational in the Indian Ocean.


In the meantime, NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and the Japanese Meteorological Agency are providing interim tsunami warnings for the region.

That effort is part of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-led $16.6 million U.S. plan to help build an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system that will work in coordination with other systems around the world.

U.S. agencies participating in the U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) Program include USAID, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Trade and Development Administration.

To make the most of their IOTWS program funding, NOAA and the other agencies are working with the IOC, the World Meteorological Organization and five countries - India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand - to establish the initial components of an end-to-end tsunami warning system.

An end-to-end system includes hazard detection-forecasting and threat evaluation-alert formation at the regional level, alert dissemination and public safety messages at the national level and preparation and response at the local level.

"We don't have enough money to complete a full system," Barrett said. "But we can do the groundwork to establish all the elements of a system that can continue to be built up until it reaches some level of maximum warning for all the Indian Ocean countries."


In addition to providing interim tsunami watches for the Indian Ocean and two deep-ocean tsunami-monitoring (DART) buoys, NOAA is upgrading 11 tide gauges in the region.

The upgraded gauges, originally installed to collect climate data, can detect minute fluctuations in sea level and transmit the data by satellite to the Global Telecommunication System (GTS), the backbone system that transmits all weather data, forecasts and warnings from country to country.

In Sri Lanka and the Maldives, NOAA is doing a major upgrade of the GTS because telecommunications links there are weak and transmission speeds are slow, Barrett said.

An important part of a tsunami forecast system involves modeling. Propagation models, given a seismic event and a location, predict the movement of waves out from the event, through the ocean and into the coastal area. Run-up or inundation models predict the path of the storm surge or tsunami wave onto the land.

In the Indian Ocean, NOAA experts will work with the five regional tsunami-watch countries to provide models and training.

Eventually, Barrett said, "these regional watch-provider centers will be able to take the data, run the models, and predict the magnitude and timing of the arrival of a tsunami."

NOAA also is working with Sri Lanka to develop a national operational concept and with Thailand to develop a regional operational concept.

An operational concept involves maximizing warning time to citizens at risk for a range of hazards by linking every ministry and organization responsible for analyzing hazard information, responding to the hazard or disseminating information to the public.

"We're using NOAA experience to set up a process that links everybody and allows data to flow where it's needed, into a decision model," Barrett said.

"Every country," he added, "has to establish a process that determines how their officials use information from the models and regional centers to make an evacuation decision, and how they implement their response system to make sure people reach safety in time."


No matter how technologically advanced a warning system is, it will fail if it cannot protect people on the beach from tsunami waves or storm surge - what those in disaster mitigation call "the last mile."

In the critical area of local preparedness and response, NOAA is working with USAID and the University of Rhode Island to help increase resilience to tsunamis by developing community guidelines that will be ready by year's end and holding workshops for communities and nongovernmental organizations that work with community organizations.

The guidelines, Barrett said, will help community residents prepare for a tsunami or other disaster by familiarizing them with evacuation routes, flood inundation areas, school and hospital evacuation procedures, transportation system disaster procedures and other important information.

In the United States, to participate in a voluntary NOAA program called TsunamiReady, communities establish a 24-hour warning point, develop multiple ways to receive tsunami warnings and alert the public, develop a formal tsunami hazard plan and conduct emergency exercises, and promote public readiness through community education. (See related article.)

The TsunamiReady program will be part of NOAA's outreach to the Indian Ocean region.

"The idea is to set up the system and do the drills," Barrett said, "constantly working with people and organizations in the community so that when the warning does come, everybody knows what to do and you have an orderly, timely response that saves lives."

For additional information, see the related article in this series as well as a 2005 series of articles on the Tsunami Early Warning System.