OPINION: Tsunami warning system; Urgent need to address the present major deficiencies

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People move to higher grounds after a tsunami warning was issued in Suva. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU/FILE

Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka is in Kiribati in an effort to return the island to the Pacific Islands Forum, where Fiji is chair.

My message to our PM through this open opinion column is that he needs to bring up for discussions at even an informal session, the urgent need for the Pacific Island nations to form a ‘Forum Region Tsunami Warning Centre (FRTWC)’ to address the present major deficiencies in our national and regional tsunami warning systems and response arrangements in the region.

The “Fiji Tsunami Warning System and Response Arrangements” document is under the responsibility of the Mineral Resources Department to co-ordinate, draft, amend and improve as part of the “Community Disaster Preparedness Service by the Fiji Government and non-government organisations for the Disaster Management Office of Fiji”.

This needs to be done in co-operation with all other stakeholders.

The document is also required to be done in great depth and width, with full research and documentation of all the likely scenarios possible and all the actions required to be taken by each authority.

The “comprehensive” document is required to ensure that staff manning the required organisations is very clear of their roles and clearly, fully and without ambiguity understand their duties.

Further to ensure that the community is also made fully aware of the complex issues involved, especially in light of the Japanese tsunami experience.

However, it should be noted that the present Fijian document falls far short of the required expectations.

It is not detailed enough and is very silent in relation to many areas that need to be well articulated in any such warning system document.

It used to be only about twenty pages long and did not “fully address the issues related to tsunami information/warnings and response requirements” as it set out to do, in the introduction to the document, especially in view of the questions that may arise after the experience of the tsunami by the community in Papua New Guinea, Samoa and more recently Japan.

The document also goes onto say that “it is well-known that for tsunamis generated by events very close to any population centre very little can be done in terms of warning people or implementing evacuation plans and any action taken by the community will depend on the level of awareness about tsunami generation and dangers”.

One of the world’s most devastating tsunami to impact on such a scale in modern times, as experienced by Japan, has shown all of us in this region, including the international community – of the need for practical, workable, and simple, no nonsense, clear, precise and transparent co-ordinated, synchronous and harmonious set of detailed instructions, guidelines, plan of action, topographical maps showing safety zone demarcations, and likely danger regions during differing location impacts.

This with no ambiguity and clear information of the organisations, the people in command and control in all aspects of community, local and national government plan of action, during a major disaster from a tsunami.

There can be no question of compromise and laxity due to the gravity of the responsibility on people concerned for these duties, which needs to be done in a timely and effective manner.

As scientists we are objective people and have a duty of care to our governments, our society and our nation to speak the truth.

The chaos, mayhem, complete breakdown of telephone, water, electricity, transport, communication and internet systems and the supply chain of goods and services, and thus other related infra-structure due to the failure of power, further hinders timely rescue, leading to people dying for needless reason such as bleeding and delay in getting medical aid.

An absence of any “Rapid Action Force” (RAF) for “quick search and rescue” will become evident, which is the most likely outcome during the “onslaught of a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami”.

These types of problems encountered in real-life situation and the manner of its prevention or ways to go around these is almost always completely missing from any plan of action in the region and even in the document in Fiji.

Often the problem is magnified as the whole system breaks down and though many individuals may be working very hard in their own right, most of the efforts and the plan of action may be made “on the run” and as “events evolve” from day to day, during the crisis.

A major tsunami generated from an earthquake of say 8.5 magnitude on the Richter scale, generated under the sea in the vicinity of Fiji even 100km away facing a major population centre, would lead to a similar situation like Samoa but on a much larger scale of destruction, injury and death, due to the larger population and the size of the islands.

Devastation and the entire loss of populations from low-lying islands and sand atolls in the vicinity of the epicentre and out to hundreds of kilometres in the path of the maximum energy impacts from the system would occur.

The issue would also be that the response time would be not much more than 25 to 30 minutes with epicentre 100-150km out and possibly 5-10 minutes for occurrence much nearer to us.

Most of this available time may not be provided to the public at large, as most of it may already be taken up by the sheer administration of that warning system due to the many layers of personalities to be communicated, and approvals received, before any formal warnings are even issued to the affected people.

The inability at night of both the director of Meteorology and the director of Mineral Resources Department to make quick decisions is an issue also.

Junior meteorologists and technical support staff shift workers on duty at the Fiji Meteorological Service, receiving the warnings from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), are required to call and wake up the director of Meteorology.

The Mineral Resources Department staff are unavailable on duty at nights as they do not do shift work like the weather office staff.

The director of Meteorology would then drive to the Fiji Meteorological Service from his home, and then communicate with the contact person of the Mineral Resources Department and also the National Disaster Management Office and other agencies, at their homes, after personally studying the initial advice from the PTWC.

Formal announcements in the form of warnings will be issued by him or the Mineral Resources Department after this, via the local radio, again taking up further time.

Not many people would be awake and any response by the public late at nights, will further delay any likely quick response.

Thus, it is no secret that for a massive “onslaught of a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami” in the vicinity of Fiji waters, would quite literally
find the public caught in their sleep at night, with a massive toll on lives, property and most people unable to evacuate at all from a direct impact, in the odd hours of night.

In contrast the Japan Meteorological Agency provides direct to the public, within two minutes of earthquake, seismic intensity information and within three minutes, earthquake information, like the location and magnitude and tsunami warning, with tsunami information within three minutes and thirty seconds, which includes estimated tsunami heights and arrival times.

Within five minutes the original earthquake and seismic intensity information is updated including reports of observed tsunami heights and
arrival times.

The timing is excellent as we have a very understanding PM this time and is extremely interested in a peaceful and loving Pacific community, with very good relations.

Our PM should start the ball rolling and form a grouping from each nation, to report back to the chairman with the status, needs and proposed future plans for the region – possibly at the next year’s meeting.

This will be an icebreaker for our PM and a definite starter towards something tangible for the future for our region, under an understanding PM.

• This is Part 1 of a four-part series.

• DR SUSHIL K SHARMA is the Associate Professor of Meteorology at the FNU. The views expressed are his and not necessarily of this newspaper.

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