Sunday, January 02, 2005

L.A. Times Provides Outstanding Report On Missed Tsunami Signals

In what appears to be the most comprehensive and illuminating report yet of missed signals in the Great Tsunami Catastrophe, The Los Angeles Times today (Sunday, Jan. 2) has an outstanding article detailing how many thousands of deaths could have been avoided.

In the bylined article by Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, The Times is able to confirm that the Indian military in Madras had a pointed distress call, relayed from the civilian Madras Airport, from the military airbase on the Andaman Islands an hour and 30 minutes before the tsunami that had hit the Andamans struck Madras, but never reported the mayday, high-frequency call back to other civil authorities who could have issued a warning to the populace. In fact, a civil official in Madras noticed the earthquake on a seismograph, the quake was actually felt in Madras, and the civil official contacted New Delhi. But the article says that "official channels didn't permit" an exchange of information between the official who read the seismograph and the military in the city of Madras, and so the warnings of a devastating tsunami from the Andaman Islands and of a huge earthquake on the seismograph were never passed on to residents of Madras or elsewhere in India. At least 10,000 deaths have been reported in Madras and other points on the Indian coast.

The article also says that Thai and Sri Lankan scientists had some vague warnings but failed to pass them on. On the other hand, warnings (quite a bit later, but still in time) were passed on to residents in Kenya and Somalia, sharply reducing the death toll in East Africa.

The article notes, "Even in Somalia, where little centralized authority exists, word of mouth carried the warnings to some fishing villages and may have saved many lives."

The New York Times examined the warnings issue in an article late last week, but unlike The L.A. Times article, most of its examination was from the point of view of U.S. and other foreign tsunami warning centers, and not from authorities in countries that were hit by the tsunami. The L.A. Times article thus breaks new and valuable ground.

Further examination, however, may be in order, as to the failure of U.S. scientific authorities to quickly grasp the size of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra, and thus initiate a meaningful worldwide warning. It is true that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii had no Indian Ocean experience. But still, this was a holiday, Christmas night, and it may have caused a fatal slowness in U.S. response which has not yet been admitted. The Times article does note that once the tsunami was evident, after it struck Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, the U.S. tsunami experts were able, through roundabout means, to pass on a warning to East Africa.

Past experience with catastrophes has shown that even the most astute scientists are sometimes too slow to appreciate the magnitude of a really great earthquake or volcanic eruption, or too slow to accurately read warning signs. Dealing mostly with moderate disasters, they are hesitant to quickly reach conclusions about major ones. There is, in fact, just a hint in the L.A. Times article this morning that authorities at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., may have been quicker to appreciate the devastating nature of the Sumatra earthquake than the scientists at the Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

Also, the Hawaiian scientists are quoted as saying that their first assessment of the quake, as a magnitude 8.0 meant that it was "significant but not enormous" and thus by implication too small to form a tsunami. This is not correct. Many fatal tsunamis have been formed by earthquakes less powerful than an 8.0.

Still, it is the Indian military that had the clearest of signals of an impending catastrophe and failed to pass them on. The Indians would have had more contacts in Sri Lanka and possibly in Thailand than Americans, and thus could conceivably also gotten out warnings there. The Indian military seems no more alert to danger than some of our own military the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack, Dec. 7, 1941

Even some normally quick news personnel were not particularly quick to act on first the tsunami reports to rev up coverage. Hence CNN allowed Fox to get a jump of hours in substantive coverage. An article in the L.A. Times Calendar section last week noting that CNN finally did rev up coverage failed to note the early gap with Fox, but The L.A. Times, particularly its Calendar section, is not at all friendly to Fox.

The New York Times was quicker off the dime than The L.A. Times in emphasizing the story about the sizable numbers of missing Europeans in the tsunami. But The L.A. Times story today about the warnings was a clear scoop over The New York Times and one The L.A. Times reporters and editors can be proud of.

Assisting Watson, Demick and Fausset in preparing the warnings story were staff writers Richard C. Paddock, Bruce Wallace, Mark Magnier, Elizabeth Shogren, Sonni Efron, Thomas H. Maugh II and Monte Morin. They were widely separated in location. This was a marvelous example of journalistic cooperation within The L.A. Times.

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