2004, Dec 26: When the Richter scale hit 8…at the US PTWC

Assistant Director of the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) based at Honolulu, Hawaii, Stuart A. Weinstein who was in Colombo recently, relives that long and tragic day

Tuning in to CNN he realized that disaster had struck many a country. A Reuter story that people had been killed in far away Sri Lanka and India held him and his fellow-officer in shock for a few moments before they quickly attempted to figure out what could be done next to prevent more deaths.

Four hours earlier, all had not been right with the environment. There was an earthquake off the coast of Northern Sumatra and the first bulletin was put out 15 minutes later, says Assistant Director of the US Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) based at Honolulu, Hawaii, Stuart A. Weinstein who was in Colombo recently, reliving that long and fateful day of December 26, five years ago.

But their links were basically with the Pacific Rim countries and the initial reports indicated that the magnitude of the earthquake was an 8 on the Richter scale.
Stuart A. Weinstein

When the earthquake occurred, it was a case of being alert - for both Dr. Weinstein and colleague Barry Hirshorn who were manning the PTWC that day. Their mandate was to act as a "trip-wire" keeping tabs on where and how big any earthquake in the region was and inform the relevant countries. But they had to tread carefully -- they had to be on alert for a tsunami which could be triggered by the earthquake and kill large numbers and cause massive destruction but at the same time make sure that they didn't over-react resulting in panic.

Even when the earthquake is as large as an 8, there may be or may not be a "destructive tsunami" being generated, stresses Dr. Weinstein who is a geophysicist, explaining that long gravity waves set off by an earthquake in the sea can either be three centimetres or three metres in amplitude depending on the nature of the earthquake and the depth below the surface at which it took place. "So we need to figure out if a destructive tsunami was generated instead of a tsunami that is merely visible on sea-level instruments."

About 40 minutes after the PTWC issued the first bulletin, additional information flowed in and they realized that the earthquake magnitude was about 8.5.

"We followed up the first bulletin with a supplementary one because as far as a couple of hundred kms from the epicentre of such a quake, destructive tsunamis could affect coastlines. The problem, however, was that there was no sea level observational network in the Indian Ocean passing down real-time data," he points out.

There were only four sea-level observation instruments and we were paying attention to the one at Cocos Island, and even that was not real-time information. By the time it did transmit indications of a tsunami, it was already four hours after the earthquake and Sri Lanka, India and Thailand had already been hit. But if we had a proper sea level observation network like we do now we could have reacted faster and perhaps saved more lives, he says.

Five years after the tsunami there are 60 sea-level instruments transferring data in real time every 15 minutes from the Indian Ocean, including three in Sri Lanka located at Colombo, Kirinde and Trincomalee, the Sunday Times understands. Some of these instruments transmit data as frequently as every three minutes.

When the Cocos Island information came in along with the Reuters report and the Harvard Seismology report that the magnitude was actually at least as large as an 8.9, they knew that this part of the world "was in a lot of trouble". The massive 8.9 earthquake was in the league of the top 10 greatest earthquakes.

Through the US embassies, not only Mauritius and Madagascar but also East African countries were warned about the tsunami bearing down on them, the authorities of whom evacuated their coastlines preventing more deaths.

Reiterating that it is the PTWC's responsibility to put out as much information as possible about the earthquake and rise of sea levels, he says that once the tsunami bulletins and alerts are out, it is the duty of the emergency managers of the emergency management systems based on the ground in their respective countries in the region to act promptly.

"They have to decide whether or not the earthquake/tsunami represent a tsunami threat to their coastlines and it is their job to make availablewhatever information is necessary to the public and activate evacuation plans if necessary," he stresses.

Another vital aspect of disaster management is public education, according to him. There is a responsibility with the government to keep the public informed about what they should do in case of a disaster alert such as a tsunami. The public should also be aware of how to react.

"If you waste time trying to contact people, trying to figure out what they should do, there will be delays," he says, adding that the people must know what guidelines to follow when a tsunami alert goes off.

The PTWC is also involved in training personnel from different countries on operational procedures etc, it is learnt.

24-hour contact with SL Met Dept.

The PTWC has 24-hour contact with the Department of Meteorology in Sri Lanka now, says Dr. Weinstein who was in Colombo to attend an NGO conference which explored the possibility of using advances in information and communication technology such as cellular phones and texting to warn the public about an impending disaster.

Now the local Met. Department monitors all earthquake warnings with information on the location and magnitude, according to him.

Dispelling speculation that at the time of the 2004 tsunami, the PTWC attempted to contact Sri Lanka, Dr. Weinstein stressed that no such thing happened. "This is not true. About six hours after the tsunami had hit, the Sri Lankan Navy got in touch with us seeking information," he added.

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