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Lack of expertise caused tsunami warning system failure

Villages were destroyed and homes, roads and power infrastructure were damaged in Indonesia after a warning system failed to portend a 3m high tsunami on Tuesday.

The wave hit the remote Mentawai Islands, where it destroyed villages in the south of the island chain, washing away hundreds homes built from timber and bamboo. In one village – Muntei Baru on Silabu island – 80% of the houses were badly damaged.

The tsunami left crops and roads more than 500m inland lying underwater, and telecommunication and electricity systems in the area were left damaged. More than 20,000 people were displaced by the floodwaters.

“We do not have the expertise to monitor the buoys to function as intended.”

Fauzi, Meteorology and Geophysic Agency

A tsunami warning system that could have saved lives failed to work due to a lack of maintenance and expertise, said Indonesian Meteorology and Geophysic Agency head Fauzi.

The warning system was designed to give people time to flee to higher ground by using electronic detection of changes in water levels by buoys to set off warning sirens.

The system worked when it was installed but was showing problems as early as 2009, said Fauzi. It fell into disrepair because of inexperienced operators and effectively stopped working last month. No sirens sounded after Monday’s earthquake.

“We do not have the expertise to monitor the buoys to function as intended,” said Fauzi. Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS), the Germany-Indonesia agency which set up the system, could not be reached for comment.

Close to the epicentre

However, it remains unclear whether a functioning warning system could have made a real difference. The Mentawai Islands were so close to the earthquake’s epicentre that the tsunami would have reached them within mere minutes of the sirens sounding.

Authorities have identified  temporary latrines as among the most immediate needs of those affected, and a needs assessment by the Indonesian government and the United Nations began yesterday. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) said it is in close contact with the Indonesian government and is “ready to help if necessary”.

The tsunami was triggered by a 7.7-magnitude undersea earthquake late on Monday, caused by the same fault line responsible for the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean. Indonesia’s tsunami warning system was completed in 2008 with German aid as a response to the 2004 disaster.

At least 311 people died in this week’s tsunami. At least 30 more people died on Tuesday when the Mount Merapi volcano erupted 1,300km to the east in central Java, sending searing ash clouds into the air.

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