It wasn't supposed to be a surprise this time. Soon after the 2004 disaster, the international community began work on a regional tsunami-alert system for the Indian Ocean similar to the one already operating in the Pacific Ocean. Germany, Japan, the U.S. and others helped to upgrade the region's shore-based tide-gauge stations, which can measure the sea-level changes caused by a tsunami, and planned to install sophisticated deep-ocean buoys off Indonesia to detect tsunamis when they're still out to sea. By last month, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.N. body leading the international effort, declared that an interim alert system was up and running. Warnings would be relayed to Indian Ocean nations from existing tsunami-monitoring centers in Hawaii and Japan.
Those centers, which rapidly interpret earthquake data sent in by seismic observatories around the world, detected last week's Java tsunami. But due to gaps in the way a tsunami alert is broadcast to the public, no warnings reached the people on the Javanese beaches?underscoring just how difficult it still is to protect the most vulnerable countries from killer tidal waves. "Let's not kid ourselves and think we solved the warning problem because we can detect a tsunami and say, 'It's coming,'" says Laura Kong, head of the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu. "We have to make sure that the information gets out to the last person, and that they know what to do. We're not there yet."
What went wrong? Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Committee, says the response to the Java tsunami actually represented a success for the interim warning system?and in a sense, he's right. Just 17 minutes after the earthquake struck off the coast of Java, scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii crunched the seismological data and sent a bulletin to colleagues in Jakarta, warning of the possibility of a local tsunami for land within 100 km of the temblor's epicenter. In the 2004 tsunami, those simple lines of communication did not exist. But that's the easy part. "The initial system did work," says Bernal. "From then on, it is the responsibility of the Indonesian system."
What came next was a failure to communicate. About 20 minutes after the quake, the Indonesian Meteorology and Geophysics Agency's technical department for tsunamis received the e-mail bulletin from PTWC in Honolulu that included a warning about the risk of a local tsunami, according to Fauzi, the department's chief. Fauzi told Time his agency subsequently relayed text messages warning of the quake to about 400 Indonesian officials in disaster management, but there was little they could do: there were no alarm bells to ring on the beach, no emergency broadcasts to transmit over the radio or TV, no way to warn the people on the coast. The Ministry of Research and Technology, which heads the development of Indonesia's tsunami-warning system, came under criticism for failing to raise a clear alert, but officials point out correctly that the interim system is still far from complete. And because the quake occurred so close to shore, even a flawless system would have been hard-pressed to disseminate a warning in the roughly 30 minutes it took the tsunami to reach the beach. "It's not enough just to tell people," says Fauzi. "If they are not prepared and don't know what to do, you could create even more confusion and panic."
That last mile is the hardest one, and even rich countries can be caught off-guard?witness Hurricane Katrina. Indonesia, with its 54,716 km of often densely populated and earthquake-prone coastline, is particularly exposed to the threat of local tsunamis. "There need to be sirens or SMS messages on cell phones or even Internet warnings," says Arthur Lerner-Lam, director of the Center for Hazards and Risk Research at Columbia University. "The public has to be aware of what to do, and that's education." In Indonesia, such educational programs are only in place on Sumatra, which bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, and even there, only pockets of the island would be prepared if a wave hit tomorrow. "The rest of the country is still very vulnerable," says Pariatmono, coordinator for the development of the tsunami-warning system.
The level of readiness also varies among other nations around the Indian Ocean. Thailand, which lost 8,000 people in the 2004 tsunami, has worked hard to improve local warnings, erecting 62 sirens on towers along beaches in six provinces, each capable of alerting people as far as 2 km inland. Those alerts are issued by the government's National Disaster Warning Center, the first such command post opened in the region after the 2004 tsunami. Sri Lanka, too, has earned plaudits for coordinating with UNESCO's regional efforts, and developing a strong system for disseminating warnings from the capital, utilizing churches and temples to help sound the alarm.
Too often, however, politics have trumped practicalities. Initially the Indian Ocean warning system was supposed to be truly regional, with a single center processing and sending out alerts to endangered countries. But that plan collapsed as various nations balked at sharing data and responsibility; instead they competed to host the headquarters. The result is a net of national tsunami centers, hopefully sharing data but currently less integrated than the system in the Pacific. India has decided to go it virtually alone, investing $30 million to create a detection system that will in many ways mirror UNESCO's. Unlike the Pacific, "this is not a region that has a history of cooperation," says David McKinnie, coordinator for the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Project.
Another worry is that a heavy focus on detection technology for the entire region may be draining resources from the more critical problems of basic preparedness in those areas most threatened by tsunamis. "In western Sumatra, there is no emergency preparation beyond what would save 1% of the people here," says Kerry Sieh, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology who has spent years studying Indonesia. Sieh fears that a tsunami far deadlier than the one on July 17 could strike the western coast of Sumatra or Java at any time, and warns that the international community first needs to devote itself to the unglamorous work of building up basic seismology and education within the country, to ensure that every Indonesian in harm's way is ready to respond if the big one hits. "Otherwise, it's a tragedy waiting to happen."
For Aesih Irawan, tragedy was averted, but she wonders what will happen the next time the earth shakes. Last week, refugee camps in the hills of Pangandaran were still packed with survivors too scared to return home while soldiers dug for corpses along the beach. "I'm very happy to be alive," Irawan says. "But every time I feel an aftershock, I feel like that may change." In catastrophe-plagued Indonesia, you never know when the next warning?if there is one?may be the last.